September 13, 2006

Hope for the press?

You may have noticed that we here at Language Log have been wringing our hands for several months about our inability to communicate language science effectively to laypersons, especially to journalists. On the positive and hopeful side, some really good columns are being written by Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe, Linda Seebach, and Michael Erard (independent journalist), as well as a few others. We can take this as a sign of progess. And now comes a recent column in the Washington Post, by Eugene Robinson. It offers some more hope, albeit indirectly, that linguists may be having some effect on the world.

Robinson is critical of some of the current political lexicon. For example, he questions the implicatures of recently used words, like "homeland," about which he says: accident or design, (homeland) has the effect of clouding our view of our enemies and ourselves... an infelicitous choice that makes us sound as if we had quaint harvest rituals and a colorful national costume. It strikes an odd note, with its vague connotations of ethnic solidarity and ancient nationalism, and it gives off more than a whiff of us-vs. them.

Us-them? Who would have thought?

Robinson also questions the definitions of other recently used political coinages, such as "the war on terrorism," which he defines as "police work," not military.  He says that the use of this expression "has come to define  our era as entirely suspect" because it redefined a law enforcement task as one suitable for invasion, ostensibly removing the principles of habeas corpus and due process.

He defines terrorism as "a tactic, not an enemy" and he has little good to say about the way the government defines current expressions like "terrorist surveillance program," "civil war," and words like "detainees," and, or course, "torture."

Maybe we're gaining on it a little.

Posted by Roger Shuy at September 13, 2006 12:53 PM