Word up

The day that my review copies of Don Watson’s Weasel Words and Julian Burnside’s Word Watching arrived, my wife showed me a newspaper article in which Buckingham Palace reported that Princess Anne had been involved in an air proximity incident. In plain English, this meant that a Typhoon Combat Jet and the Princess’s Royal Squadron BAE 125 had come as close as a curtsey to smashing each other into a million pieces over Morecambe Bay. Had this happened, there would have been, to quote Weasel Words, a negative health consequence for the Princess. From Word Watching I learned that the equivalent American term is Midair Passenger Exchange, an encounter that is almost invariably followed by aluminium rain.

This is as good a way as any of seeing how these two very different books at times converge, brought into the same arena by shared interests—in this case, the capacity for meaning to be deliberately fudged for whatever sinister or mad reason. But whereas that is one of Burnside’s interests, it is the core of Watson’s (as distinct, he would want it noted, from his non-core interests): ‘ …weasel words, clichés and jargon (are used) as shields against attack, as camouflage to escape detection, as smokescreens or vapour to blind or repel anyone sniffing out the truth about us’.

As with great art, Weasel Words pleases with moments of familiarity and sudden surprises. It is comforting, for example, to come across Icon. You confidently expect it and, sure enough, not only does it appear, but it is nailed:

1 Image or representation, usually of a saint or other sacred Christian personage. … 2 Computer symbol. 3 Any well-known footballer or cricketer, the Big Pineapple, the Crocodile Man … [more than 40 further examples follow] 4 Anything or anyone you say. (Make your own list).

And it is surprising, but wonderful, to come across ‘We’, among whose alternative meanings are:

‘1 You and me. 2 Me. 3 Me and the wife. 4 My government, cabinet, regime, cabal, junta, reich, etc. 5 Not you. Not the High Court. Not the Navy. Not the United Nations. Not the captain of a Norwegian ship. Not anyone who doesn’t suit me.’

Weasel Words is brilliantly witty, often hilarious, especially read aloud at the dinner table whenever someone inadvertently or worse still deliberately falls back on a weasel word. But don’t let your own delight and laughter lead you to under-rate it: this is more than a dictionary. Beneath its alphabetical surface runs a discontinuous satiric narrative that is an assault not only on the corrupting and defilement of the language but also, unerringly, on the people who are hiding behind and prospering from this corruption.

On this point, Julian Burnside is equally unequivocal: Orwell, he suggests, ‘would be disappointed (to find that) slick political language is as powerful now as in 1933: it can hide shocking truth, it can deceive a nation, and it can hand electoral victory to the morally bankrupt’. This is one of the toughest moments in Word Watching, which is a delightful collection of short essays on quixotically selected lexicographical examples, curiosities and profundities catching the eye of a (not so) ‘amateur philologist’.

The fascinating lexicography of animals (‘Beastly Words’), ‘Nice Distinctions’, legal language, slang, collective nouns, ‘Doublespeak’, the ‘harmless drudgery’ of philology itself, and errors that endure into acceptance, all come under Burnside’s gentle but probing scrutiny. You could consult this book the way you might consult Fowler or Strunk and White, for running linguistic repairs. You will find, among much else, that he concedes ‘reluctant’ has been taken over by ‘reticent’; and that ‘disinterest’ has beaten ‘uninterest’ from the field—though he could take heart from ‘mitigate’: consistently used wrongly a decade ago to mean militate (against), it seems to have made a comeback recently—and that Burnside himself uses ‘quotes’ as a noun, thus helping ‘quotation’ further into decrepitude.

But better still, read it as a book of fine essays, laced with a sometimes self-deprecating wit, which use the language with the grace and respect that has inspired him to ‘watch words’ in the first place.

Above all, though, there is a lively consciousness on the part of both authors—no matter how brilliantly in their different ways they entertain us with ‘mere words’ —that language is a glory and a splendour, but it is also political, that its corruption, when this happens, or is allowed to happen, is no accident. ‘The Nazi regime mastered it’, Burnside observes, ‘the Howard Government has been an enthusiastic apprentice’. Likewise Watson: ‘Language, as Stalin knew, is an essential instrument of terror’.

The language is a serious responsibility. Both these books perform in its cause—to end with an honourable cliché—above and beyond the call of duty. 

Watson’s dictionary of weasel words, contemporary clichés, cant and management jargon, Don Watson. Random House, 2004. isbn 1 740 51321 5, rrp $32.95, Word watching: Field notes from an amateur philologist, Julian Burnside. Scribe, 2004. isbn 1 920 76938 2, rrp $32.95

Brian Matthews is an award-winning writer and columnist.


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