December 22, 2003

A tale of two Dons

Down in Australia, The Age reviews Don Watson's Death Sentence, The Decay of Public Language, which "charts how 'managerial language' has infiltrated the English of politics, business, bureaucracy, education and the arts. The book is about the rise of core strategies and key performance indicators, and the death of clarity and irony and funny old things called verbs. It is about a new language that Watson calls sludge and clag and gruel."

Well, O.K. then (or should I say, "good on him"?). But I have to wonder whether Don Rumsfeld is in the index, and if so, what he's cited for. Rumsfeld's language makes an impression on people. For people who don't agree with his politics and don't sympathize with high-ranking bureaucrats, the reaction is often negative (as in the case of the egregiously undeserved "Foot in Mouth" award) or sarcastic (as in the case of Slate's .piece on "The Poetry of D.H. Rumsfeld"). Rumsfeld's transgression seems to be that he tries to discuss complicated things, in a difficult political context, in language that is plain, simple and as clear as circumstances permit. Some of the people who have trouble with his politics have double trouble with his language. They react as if he came to a news conference wearing a dress.

Watson was a speech-writer for Paul Keating, who rates a website just for his recorded insults. These seem to be cases where he chose to talk in public the way people normally talk in private:

"Now listen mate," [to John Browne, Minister of Sport, who was proposing a 110 per cent tax deduction for contributions to a Sports Foundation] "you're not getting 110 per cent. You can forget it. This is a fucking Boulevard Hotel special, this is. The trouble is we are dealing with a sports junkie here [gesturing towards Bob Hawke]. I go out for a piss and they pull this one on me. Well that's the last time I leave you two alone. From now on, I'm sticking to you two like shit to a blanket."

You can get plenty of this stuff from public figures if you want it -- Molly Ivins has been filling columns for years with colorful quotes from Texas politicians. Rumsfeld's public language is different. It lacks the profanity and the colorful colloquialisms and even most of the informal discourse markers. He just explains complicated things carefully in plain words. Apparently that weirds people out.

[via A.L.D]

[Update 12/23/2003: the word clag, used in the review quoted above, was new to me. The OED says that it's "north. dial." for "[t]he process or product of clagging; a sticky mass adhering to feet or clothes, entangled in hair, or the like; a clot of wool consolidated with dirt about the hinder parts of a sheep, etc. ". Unfortunately Watson's book is apparently not (yet?) available in the U.S., nor does find it, though it's published by Knopf and available in Australia. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 22, 2003 06:57 AM