January 16, 2007


Well, I stepped on a few corns yesterday. Rather than add updates to the posts in question, as I usually do, I'll collect the email and my answers in one place here, and link forward from the earlier posts.

Neil Golightly writes:

Love the blog, very interesting stuff even to a non-linguist like myself.

However, I would like to make a comment on your entry "BBC's duplicity stuns Language Loggers".

Duplicity? Remember Hanlon's Razor - "Never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to stupidity". Although here I don't think it's even stupidity, but more likely to be a limitation of their content management system and processes: the point has been addressed here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2006/10/sniffing_out_edits.html (see also comments 39 and 40)
Quote: "But lesser changes - including minor factual errors, corrected spellings and reworded paragraphs - go through with no new timestamp because in substance the story has not actually progressed any further."

Perhaps you ought to send them a comment at the.editors@bbc.co.uk ? Or there is a formal complaints site here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/ . Don't just expect them to be checking Language Log every day, excellent site though it is.

Telepathic parrots? A "minor factual error"? If African Greys were really telepathic, it would be the story of the century.

As for complaining, fat lot of good it did John Wells. Though they did change "this phenomena" to "this phenomenon" in the quote attributed to him, which I guess is something. But the inflation of a cheese-company public-relations stunt into a fake science story was left in place. And the result of multiple complaints about the chatnannies story was that BBC News simply removed it from their web site and pretended that it never happened. Complaints about most other things, such as the frog sex flapdoodle, have simply been ignored.

Given that sort of response, and the frequency with which BBC News continues to produce prodigious inanities, it seems better to try to alert the public than to yell into the deaf ears of BBC News about the most recent specimen of hooey.

All the same, I hope it was clear that the post's title was tongue-in-cheek. What I think about the BBC News is not that they're duplicitous, but that they simply don't care, one way or the other, about whether the things they write are true or not. Since I obviously can't know their motives, and read only a small fraction of what they write, let me state that more carefully: they often act as if they don't care about the truth of what they write, either before or after its initial publication. At least, that's the impression that I get from the fraction of what I read on their site that deals with topics that I know something about.

Given that judgment, it would hypocritical not to give a prominent place to readers' criticism of our criticism, and we'll continue to do that.


What got the most mail was our criticism of Robert Fisk's screed about how "This jargon disease is choking language": Geoff Pullum's post "Fisk on downsizing", and my follow-up "Downsizing Fisk's bile".

Rob Sears wrote:

Right, fine, "downsizing" in the mouths of managerial types is not something that's applied directly to employees, and the managers themselves certainly wouldn't consider the word to be a synonym or euphemism for "fired". I agree with the letter of all your criticisms of Fisk. But both of your posts on this topic seem naive to the idea that "downsizing" belongs to a set of business words and concepts that are regularly used to obscure and paper over embarrassing topics. Of course, downsizing a company involves a lot more than firing people. But when managers want to talk specifically about firing people they will talk about downsizing the company in an ostensibly general way, anyway. This is their means of broaching the topic. In my line of work as a business copywriter I sometimes draw up communications for or concerning people losing their jobs. The topic is absolutely this -- the loss of jobs. But if I started using direct language, you can be damn sure I would get the document back with Track Changes all over it. Managers want to keep the ostensible message exclusively on the positive aspects of job cuts -- e.g. sleeker, more agile companies with restructured workforces -- while conveying something rather different. You can blame them for that or you can consider it part of responsible management to avoid scary language. But when CEOs talk about job losses they often use words like downsizing, and rarely words like "lay off" or "fire". That's a usage fact. So I'd say you can flip a coin to decide whether Fisk's sense of downsizing is a new sense, or whether it's just a "weapons of the weak" spin on a sense that managers already employ, albeit duplicitously.

That is all. Keep up the good work, Rob

PS If you've not come across it I think "promoted to customer" takes some beating as a joke euphemism for getting fired.

I'm sure Rob is right. I spent 15 years working in an industrial research lab, and was fed my share of unwelcome biztalk. (And universities are increasingly part of the same universe, especially on the financial, operations and facilities side.) But some of this stuff, though easy to ridicule, is not entirely blameworthy. Most organizations are basically worthwhile -- universities are certainly among these -- and it's better to run them well than to run them badly. It's a good thing for people to try to develop and communicate insights about how to do this, and it's hard to develop ideas about a specialized topic like this without developing some specialized vocabulary, i.e. jargon.

Since Rob is a business copywriter, I presume that he understands all of this better than I do.

As for the "set of business words and concepts that are regularly used to obscure and paper over embarrassing topics", this process exists in every area of human life. You can see it as covering up embarrassing topics or as using diplomatic language; its opposite might be called "refreshing candor" or "gross insensitivity".

I'm generally in favor of plain speaking, but I'm also in favor of kindness. I'm generally in favor of realism, but I also prefer to look on the bright side, and to choose optimistic turns of phrase when they're a realistic choice.

And "promoted to customer" is a great phrase, which was new to me. Thanks!


Jamie Hopkings wrote:

I'm amazed that you would publicly slander someone with the phrase "Fisk's well-known anti-Americanism", especially when a simple look at the facts immediately suggest otherwise. Stating that an individual has a broad bias against 300 million people due to the country of their origin/adoption is an astonishing broadside, worthy of the worst political rhetorician.

I enjoy the enlightening writing LL immensely; but I enjoy it for its discussion of language, not your personal political opinions. I would simple ask that if you want to rant politically, start a political blog and leave LL free of it.

On reflection, I conclude that I should have written "Fisk's well-known dislike of American corporations and the American government". I don't think that his animus in that area is disguised or in any way controversial. (Not that he is much fonder of the British government or European corporations, but he has stated that journalists must "challenge authority -- all authority", and the American authorities are currently the biggest ones around.) I don't read everything that Fisk writes, but I've read a lot of his stuff, and I don't recall having seen anything that contradict this evaluation. (Though he has more than one set of peeves -- for example, he clearly has an intense dislike of football, that is, what Americans would call "soccer".)

If you look at the words and phrases that Fisk objects to, many of them -- excellence, interact, impact, outsource, downsize, feedback, input, big picture, no-brainer, outside the box, mission statement, push the envelope, work space, key players, tipping point, and so on -- strike me as having come to prominence via American business and government, whether directly or through popular or academic writing about related topics. (Though I freely admit that I haven't traced the history, except in the case of downsize, the word specifically treated in our posts, which is definitely of American corporate origin). Another large subset of the words he cites -- conflicted, stressed (out), bonding, cope, seeking closure, personal space, quality time, dysfunctional -- comes from the language of pop psychology and self-help books, what he calls "the language of therapy, in which frauds, liars and cheats are always trying to escape" I think of (this style of) therapy-talk as being basically American in origin, though it's certainly now a world-wide phenomenon.

It's true that a few of Fisk's lexical complaints -- about author being used in place of authoress, for example -- seem simply to be bizarre bits of idiosyncratic conservative crankiness, without any particular national or social connection. But there are several veins of jargon, or at least "words and concepts that are regularly used to obscure and paper over embarrassing topics", that he chose to stay away from, such as the one that includes militant and martyrdom operation. So I thought it was plausible to suggest that his take on the "jargon disease that is choking language", like everything else he writes, is influenced by his notion of who the bad guys are.


And Steve Jones wrote:

I find it rather sad that a purported intellectual such as yourself should fall into the basic trap of confusing opposition to the US's foreign policy as being opposition to all things anti-American. [sic]

As to Fisk not being interested in political facts perhaps you could explain how it is his analyses that have proven time and time again to be correct and not those of his know-it-all opponents (normally acting from knee-jerk pro-Israeli bias) in the blogosphere - hint; the fact that he is actually in the area as opposed to in his bedroom thousands of miles away might have something to do with the matter).

I can see that Steve feels strongly about this, or he wouldn't have written "opposition to all things anti-American" when he meant "opposition to all things American". I concede this point, though I'd supplement "opposition to the US's foreign policy" with "dislike of American corporations and American corporate culture" and "dislike of the American military and all its activities".

On this last issue, there's a striking contrast with the way that Fisk treats the officers and men of non-western armies -- for example in his (very interesting) reporting from the Iran-Iraq war. The same thing goes for his descriptions of the partisans of various irregular fighting groups that he has met and described, such as the member of Islamic Jihad, one of the captors of Terry Anderson, whom he describes at length near the end of Pity the Nation:

Here was a man, I thought as I watched him, who had travelled far from our world, had sought and found a determination that suppressed any apprehension or disquiet or fear. Because of the suffering he had caused Terry, I should have hated him. He himself called the taking of innocent hostages an 'evil'. But I did not hate him. In the course of our conversation he would become visibly angry, stabbing his right fist -- forefinger extended -- in fury as he condemned America for its support for Israel and for shooting down the Iranian civil airliner over the Gulf in 1988. I had so often seen this fury, in the aftermath of air raids or artillery bombardments, at cemetaries and mass graves. If he had allied himself with others -- and few in Lebanon doubted that an Iranian faction controlled Islamic Jihad -- his passion was genuine.

So could he not in his heart, I asked him, feel any compassion for Terry? Still those large eyes never left me. 'Of course,' he replied, 'it would be very easy to find the answer to this question if you had been the mother or the wifeof one of the hostages in Khiam -- or the mother or wife of Terry Anderson. My feelings towards the mental pain of Terry Anderson are the same as my feelings towards the Lebanese hostages in Khiam -- with the exception that the Lebanese hostages have gone through, adn are going through, both mental and physical torture.' [...]

What was he seeking, I wondered? Comprehension? Forgiveness? Did he want to show a westerner that he was a human being rather than the 'terrorist' portrayed by his American and Israeli enemies? I rather think he did.

Has Fisk ever written with this degree of sympathy about an American soldier? Not in anything that I've read, though I'm open to correction on this point.

I'm not sure what Steve means about the "analyses that have proven time and time again to be correct". My impression is that Robert Fisk takes a strong political stance in every area where he works, and writes in support of his beliefs without any pretence of doing otherwise. Sometimes his analyses have been prescient, and sometimes they've been flat wrong. This is not just the judgment of "knee-jerk pro-Israeli" bloggers. His (self-identified) friend Simon Hoggart wrote in the Guardian ("A war cry from the pulpit", 11/17/2001) that

At the time of the Gulf war [Fisk] wrote incredibly despondent articles predicting the annihilation of the western powers. He found a group of British soldiers lost in the desert and extrapolated defeat for the whole of Desert Storm. At the time of the Kosovo crisis he reported that the bombing would only make things worse. [...] In short, he is that most valuable resource, a journalist whose judgments are not just mistaken, but reliably mistaken.

This seems excessive, but it also seems excessive to say that Fisk has "proven time and time again to be correct". As I read Fisk, he makes it clear that he cares about facts only insofar as they support his causes. Has he ever discovered and reported a fact against interest? Not very often, I think, if ever.

We're getting pretty far afield from matters of language, and into an area where we don't often stray. But I felt that Robert Fisk's attitude towards the "jargon disease" that "is choking language" was very much of a piece with his attitude towards political reporting. He expressed strong feelings about a long list of specific words and phrases, arguing that this vocabulary is "repulsive", "an aggressive language of superiority", a set of "lies and obfuscations" that are "infuriating", a "disease" spread by "tiresome" people, and so on. You could infer many of his political and cultural opinions from the specific list of "repulsive" words and phrases he gives, just as you could infer a very different set of views from a list of allegedly "repulsive" jargon that included terms like transgressive art or hegemonic discourse.

Geoff and I looked at one example, downsize, where Fisk didn't just make a face, but made a sort of an argument about why the word is one of those "repulsive ... lies and obfuscations"; and we concluded that he was wrong on the facts. I'm sure that Fisk wasn't trying to mislead his readers; but I'm equally sure that he made no attempt to check his interpretation. This combination of bias and carelessness -- or, you could say, conviction and boldness -- characterizes most of his writing, it seems to me.

[Update: Ed Lass writes:

You concede too quickly to Jamie Hopkings and Steve Jones! The Wikipedia article on anti-Americanism suggests that your usage -- as a term for opposition to United States policy, multinational corporations, and possibly the cultural influence of both -- is a widespread one. The article does reflect the beliefs of those who object to the term, but then is it you who are bringing politics to LL, or your critics?

If anything, I thought the term helped to clarify Geoff Pullum's post, where Fisk's rant is labeled "conservative" (a label that you repeat in the Mailbag). I know what you mean, but I find plenty of room to pick the wrong definition of this word while talking about a political figure.

Thanks for the blog, I certainly enjoy it.

I agree that "anti-Americanism" has long been used as shorthand for a general sort of cultural animus. I used it that way a couple of years ago in discussing the section on "Americanisms" in H.W. Fowler's 1908 The King's English ("Stuck inside of Fowler with the Memphis blues again", 2/16/2004). Fowler objected to the "remorseless and scientific efficiency" of Rudyard Kipling's "americanizing" style, somehow connected this to the "barbaric taste illustrated by such town names as Memphis", and concluded that "a very firm stand ought to be made against placate, transpire, and antagonize.." I described this as "a sort of cubist collage of the classic themes of European anti-Americanism". Nobody objected then -- though Robert Fisk clearly has more partisans among our readers than Fowler does!

The attitudes in question have been around, in one form or another, since the 18th century. Philippe Roger's L'ennemi Américain traces the peculiarly French versions from the Comte de Buffon onwards. Charles Dickens expressed a 19th-century English form in Martin Chuzzlewit, about which an American reviewer wrote "There is no picture of English life in Dickens in which there are not lovable English men and women. But there is no lovable American man or woman in Martin Chuzzlewit."

It seems clear to me that Robert Fisk has his place in this distinguished tradition, whatever name we use for it.

Lameen Souag, along with some correspondence on other matters, wrote:

As for Robert Fisk, I have only read one of his books - Pity the Nation, his account of the Lebanese War (which he lived through) - but I found it rather impressive, providing a detailed first-hand account and regularly lambasting the atrocities, the cynicism, and indeed the stupidity of every major organisation involved, Palestinian or Israeli, Christian or Muslim or even Druze, UN or Syria or US. If he "cares about facts only insofar as they support his causes", he didn't do a very good job there of hiding the inconvenient ones. My overall impression is that his forecasts are unreliable for precisely the same reason that his reporting is great: he immerses himself in the feelings and experience of the inhabitants of the place he's in, whereas far too many reporters in countries with a "difficult" language seem to completely ignore such things.

This corresponds pretty well with my own impression of that book, though I wouldn't say that his empathy is as evenly distributed as his scorn. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 16, 2007 07:07 AM