Not another word

Anybody who writes a book on language, and particularly its misuse, runs the risk of being dismissed as an old fart. But Don Watson writes so wittily about the problem he discerns, one which he sees as lying at the heart of contemporary life, that most people reading Death Sentence will be both instructed and amused. It ain’t just grammar he’s after, not even the errant apostrophe. As he says, in one amongst many aphorisms, ‘To work on the grammar is like treating a man’s dandruff when he has gangrene’. Or again, when he gets into his stride attacking verbless sludge: ‘Split infinitives are not the problem with public language. In its modern form there are not enough infinitives to split.’

One of the book’s epigraphs is drawn from Orwell’s 1984, where one character points out that Newspeak is designed to narrow the whole range of thought. We may have escaped—at last—the totalitarian spectre that novel raised, but other forms of control have been refined. The new managementspeak, as Watson demonstrates, is now seeping into everything. It may be the language of the leaders rather than the led, and it may be true that people write in manereal-diseased prose because it is expected of them. But now one hears of ‘accountable’ football—from a footballer—or, ‘They risk-taked all day’—from a coach. A brother might even say to his sister how a newborn child ‘value-adds’ to the relationship with his partner. The book provides many examples of the charmless prose we are all subjected to these days, prose which Watson variously describes as clag, gruel or porridge. Keynes, says Watson, would probably have been unable to develop his theories if they had been ventured in such verbiage. You can’t joke in it, sing it, or exercise the imagination in it. Meanwhile it spreads like an oil slick. The language of everyday speech in turn has become ‘less like a language and more like just what happens when you open your mouth’.

How have we got into this mess? The primacy of marketing has a great deal to do with it, as marketing has never been much concerned with truth. Rather, its imperative has been to turn needs into wants. (Or should that be to turn wants into needs? No matter, so long as it turns a dollar.) And marketing now goes everywhere the media goes, which today is just about everywhere. Meanwhile, since the ’80s, the overlap between business and politics has seen a merger of political and economic language, a consequence of economics being seen as the main game. Business language itself has got worse, ‘mauled by the new religions of technology and management’. So there is a paradox: at a time when the language is expanding as never before—20,000 new words are added each year—the capacities of everyday speech are actually declining.

This is at once evident in politics. Politicians not only fail to speak in arresting ways, but now lack even the words to do so. There has been no inspirational summation of September 11—though JFK would have found one. And that’s quite apart from what Burke or Pitt or Lincoln, all discussed here, would have made of it. Instead of Pericles … Little Johnny. The Prime Minister’s letter about the terrorist threat is here subjected to a withering analysis, totally justified by the banality of its concepts and language. As Watson says, Howard makes everything sound the same. (The PM headbutts like a sheep, implementing a boredom strategy.) Watson also points out how these days our leaders worry less about what they say than the visual effect: Howard hugging survivors at Bali, Dubya landing on board an aircraft carrier dressed in full military attire. No wonder the Prime Minister’s letter said so little about the Australian way of life that had to be preserved: the accompanying visuals said it all. We need to defend our sacred right to go to the beach.

Characteristic of this book is the broad perspective Don Watson brings to this subject. Death sentence may, he is well aware, already have been passed; resistance may be futile. ‘Managerial language’, he writes, ‘may be to the information age what the assembly line was to the industrial’. Another comparison comes to mind: we had scarcely absorbed the impact of the Industrial Revolution, then along came the technological one, effectively putting a brand new motor inside an old chassis. Clearly it is meant to run on hot air—if it doesn’t shake to pieces. One of the most telling observations in the book is that many people are letting go of the language simply because it is ancient.

A section of the book focuses on the peculiarly Australian dimension of the problem. Since the nation was founded as a penitentiary, the most utilitarian of purposes and externally imposed, it comes as no surprise that not one of the first half dozen governors made a remark worth remembering. But the habit remained; as Watson shows, Australian statesmen (let alone politicians) have generally shied away from ideals and abstractions.

For a long time the space remained occupied by Empire-speak; it is no accident that Whitlam, who challenged much of that, is the greatest exception. Laconic, practical and inventive our language may be, but there’s no real place in it for idealism or reflection. So manereal-diseased language seems to have marched further into public discourse here than anywhere else.

There are some aspects of the problem Watson doesn’t address. The dramatic reduction in tenses, for one; most people operate now on a simple present, past, future. In reading, words tend to become ikons, recognised as a whole; rather than being misspelt by a letter or two, the wrong word is used—as in the injunction, not ‘Seize the day’ but ‘Cease the day!’ Then there is computer mangling, cutting off letters as if they were so many decimal points; the perfection of highly accessible printing, privileging presentation over content, also has much to answer for.

Watson is merciless about the overuse of certain cant words, such as commitment, enhancement and the like, but says little about ‘product’, a word now extended from the physically measurable to a wilderness of shysterism, or—my favourite—‘exciting’, the word which reduces us all to being a great big bunch of kiddies. Nevertheless, he does provide ‘exercises’ at the back of the book, and says we should all start somewhere. Journalists should challenge politicians more: ‘At the end of what day?’ Wherever we can, we should roll back the gunk.

This is a book of unusual significance, a meditation on our times as much as a work on language. Having been at various times historian, writer, satirist, country boy and speech-writer, Don Watson has drawn from an unusually wide conspectus to produce Death Sentence. It is as much a reflection on his experience as Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, and will still be read—and enjoyed—in 50 years’ time.

Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Don Watson. Knopf, 2003. isbn 1 74051 206 5, rrp $29.95

Jim Davidson is a Professor of History at Victoria University of Technology.



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