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POLICE STATE / MILITARY -
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The battlefield of language

Posted in the database on Saturday, January 07th, 2006 @ 19:16:05 MST (1014 views)
by Warwick McFadyen    The Age  

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A rendition by Tom Jones is not quite the same thing as a rendition by US government agents. They both may be orchestrated, involve carrying away their subject, one by song, the other by chains, but there the similarities end.

The controversy over the latter definition and its consequences - the abduction by one country of terror suspects from another country, and their incarceration, interrogation and possible torture in a third country - raises again the scenario of language as hostage to politics.

It is not a new phenomenon. The Nazis' use of the term "final solution" for the extermination of a people is surely the most cynical, and malevolent, euphemism.

The spotlight on rendition is, ironically, slightly misplaced. Of the several meanings of the root word, render, one is the act of giving up or yielding, albeit No. 14 in The Macquarie Dictionary.

Two hundred years ago Samuel Johnson had only one meaning for it in his Dictionary of the English Language, which was "surrendering, the act of yielding". The Oxford is of similar mind to Johnson.

The US Government has two uses of rendition - regular and irregular. According to the FBI, rendition "encompasses the formal process of extradition through a treaty". Irregular means just that. The US has been doing it, says the FBI, for more than a century, going back to snatching John Surratt, who was a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, from Alexandria in 1866. A jury was deadlocked, and Surratt was freed.

However, what rendition does have in common with more pure euphemisms is the disconnection between the word and an image that can be formed of what it actually describes. Age correspondent Paul McGeough in a report from Iraq in 2003 wrote: "Some of the photographers use a chilling term they picked up from the US military in Afghanistan to describe what might have happened to a dozen or more people thought to have died in this missile attack. They have become 'pink mist'."

The truth is that the people who died in a couple of houses in suburban Baghdad became less than mist. They became death. One could have described them as "collateral damage", which gives no hint of shredded limbs, nor apportions blame. The vaporisation of people and meaning was well known to writer George Orwell. In his essay Politics and the English Language written in the last year of World War II, Orwell wrote that in his day the speeches and statements of politicians were, in the main, a defence against that which was indefensible.

"Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification."

The "pacification" of villages was common through the 20th century - such as in Vietnam and the Soviet Union. The Soviets' method of "pacification" was called collectivisation. The Soviets also took "prosaic" to new levels of obfuscation. People were not imprisoned in labour camps, they were sent to camps for "re-education" and "corrective" tasks.

The West, on the other hand, was more colourful. Latterly "shock and awe" has been hijacked for war's descriptive purposes. Either way, villagers were the least to benefit from the linguistic twists.

As Orwell alluded, a euphemism to serve its purpose has to modify meaning. Nowhere does this fit in better than with military terms. Thus missiles become "patriots" and "peacekeepers", they cruise and they scud across the sky; missile attacks become "surgical strikes" (surgery can only be good for you); bombs become "smart" (smart equals beneficial); and "friendly fire" can kill you.

The euphemism is a foundation to one of the three central pillars of power for the party in Orwell's novel 1984 - ignorance is strength. If a word is masked for long enough then its meaning mutates, and Orwell's futuristic maxim burrows deeper into the language. We become hostage to euphemism and think it true whatever is said to us.

Surely the silliest abduction of a word was the suggestion by an American politician on the eve of the invasion of Iraq by the coalition of the willing to take the French (who were opposed to the US stance) out of fries and replace it with the combat-clad word Freedom. It was doomed to failure. After all, a chip by any other name, including fries, is still a chip.

Warwick McFadyen is a staff writer.



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