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“Detainee,” “rendition,” etc.: Who needs these words?

COMMENTARY | April 25, 2006

Recalling Orwell: “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

By Wick Sloane

“Detainee.”  “Rendition.”  “Water-board.”  “Enemy combatant.” 

These evasions have slipped their quotation marks and entered the language, garroting forty percent of the Bill of Rights on the way.

Take a two-click refresher. First, go to the Bill of Rights itself. Then to George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

Over-quoted and seldom read, the Bill of Rights and Orwell’s essay shout at us all as our president and his protectors in our grand Washington, D.C., buildings, torture the values of the nation, using stilted, evasive language as one of their weapons. Both the Bill and Orwell are easy reads. In spite of what equivocating Supreme Court nominees suggest about complexity, the Bill of Rights is barely one page long, written in English that requires no translation today. 

The Orwell essay is about the vigilance democracy requires from any citizen. “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” 

That wind today blows to hide just this: Grabbing a human being, locking him up, pouring water down his throat, jailing him without end or a lawyer or any charges. 

The four of the ten Amendments Cheney, Rumsfeld and friends sneer at:

  • IV – Against unreasonable search and seizure and requiring warrants. 
  • V -- Another over-quoted but seldom read, insists on due process, and wartime variances are regarding offenses by our troops. 
  • VI -- A speedy and public trial, in the district where crime committed (not secret prisons in foreign lands). Informed of the charges. 
  • And VIII – Against excesses including cruel and unusual punishment. 

“Detainee.”  What about prisoner, inmate, captive, even jailbird? 

“Rendition” is a weak rendering of kidnap, abduct, seize, or take hostage. 

“Waterboarding?” Why doesn’t CIA Director Porter Goss say “cramming a hosepipe down a man’s throat, turning on the water and then holding his head in a toilet, just to the point of drowning”? The Oxford English Dictionary Online (paid subscription only) offers “water-board” as a noun, a gutter, not as the Abu-Ghrabian verb from the Pentagon. Remember, the U.S. has yet to atone for what history books still call “interning” Japanese Americans in World War II. 

Just a year ago, at Easter dinner I asked a poet what she made of “detainee” as a regular word. She had just failed in several tries to visit her undocumented cleaning lady in prison. It seems that local police broke into the cleaning lady’s apartment and took her to a state prison. No lawyer. No visitors. No confirmation for her family where she was. The cleaning lady remained in prison for a month and the U.S. deported her home to Guatemala. 

No one disputed her immigration status. Immigration, though, is federal. Local police making arrests?  State prisons? How many Pell Grants or child immunizations to imprison a cleaning lady for a month? This was in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, places with some connection to the Bill of Rights. No press interest on the issues of this woman’s detention despite calls to news organizations. Not a peep. Silence. No surprise to Orwell, I fear.

A year later “detainee” has company in common usage. Who’s in charge? I wrote William Safire, “On Language.” No reply. Nothing doing with two consecutive Public Editors at The New York Times. Even Amy Goodman, always-outraged host of Democracy Now, who should know better, uses “detainee.” No reply from anyone on why they let the politicians bend us with the “detainee” winds.  Silence, too, from The Nation magazine.  So what?

I agree with Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch executive director, in the group’s (poorly copy-edited) annual report: “Any discussion of detainee abuse in 2005 must begin with the United States, not because it is the worst violator, but because it is the most influential.”

This turned my mind to President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright, stretching in all directions to avoid the word “genocide” for murder, slaughter, killings, massacres in Africa. Carnage neither would tolerate in Times Square. Thinking of that, I clicked back to the OED.  “Genocide” itself came to life in the euphemism ward.

From the OED, quoting the Sunday Times in October 1945: “The United Nations' indictment of the 24 Nazi leaders has brought a new word into the language – genocide. It occurs in Count 3, where it is stated that all the defendants ‘conducted deliberate and systematic genocide – namely, the extermination of racial and national groups…’”

“Genocide” is not exactly easy on the ear or soul, but it’s not as jarring as “slaughtering,” “shooting,” “starving,” “gassing,” and “hanging” six million human beings. Or people. 

I checked with my friend Eric Freedman, a Constitutional scholar at Hofstra University, who is working on establishing rights for the people locked up at Guantanamo. Can verbal evasions cost lives?

“Yes, ‘genocide’ does invoke lots of treaties,” Eric wrote.  “And, BTW, ‘enemy combatants’ is a portmanteau phrase made up by the administration to cover up the fact that they are not applying the Geneva Conventions to the purported war (the correct legal terms are things like ‘privileged’ and ‘unprivileged’ belligerent, ‘prisoner of war’).”

“To portmanteau” is to combine words. Lewis Carroll may have been the one to invent the term. A Constitutional question crossing paths with Alice in Wonderland makes me miss Al Haig’s formulations, such as, “That's not a lie, it's a terminological inexactitude. Also, a tactical misrepresentation.” In spite of his evasive language, Haig, by comparison, really wasn’t up to much mischief. 

Orwell reminds us in closing Politics and the English Language that linguistics at home are important. If words today aren’t as important as Kevlar vests in Iraq, they are important nevertheless. In our courts and in our polling booths, on our computer keyboards and from our own solitary voices.

“One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase – some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse – into the dustbin where it belongs.”

Or the local police may break down our door next.  

Dumbing down a language
Posted by Felicity Smith -
04/25/2006, 02:34 PM

makes obfuscating its meaning manifestly easy because language that requires thought to understand is automatically avoided or at least not subjected to rational reasoning. Half-truths seem to be particularly in vogue these days, especially by the media (we expect it of politicians).

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