Wily Weasel Words


Public speech is riddled with weasel words: those vague, bland clichés which suck the meaning from real words, leaving only a hollow shell of deceit, an empty ‘once-word.’

For example, in early November, the cavernous crater threatening to engulf a block of flats above Sydney’s Lane Cove Tunnel was an ‘unforseen geological event,’ (1) which effectively removes the emotion, the cause and the responsibility without actually meaning anything in itself.

Where once a ‘For Lease’ sign on a vacant office block would have sufficed, one on Macquarie Street in Sydney reads now reads: ‘Optimise your competitive advantage from this distinctive office space and identity!’

Orwell’s Newspeak has become the building block of the contemporary political media grab. Mike Seccombe in the Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that Prime Minister Howard avoids the complexity and subtlety of a written speech, preferring to be seen as a ‘plain-speaking man.’

To most Australians, who are uninterested in the daily political banter, Howard’s toneless voice sounds like reassuring political muzak we are dulled into a false sense of security. His speeches are so monochromatic, so achingly anodyne, that we mistakenly think of them as being as innocent as they are comforting.

When the pre-occupied news audience hears his voice droning daily banalities in this soporific way, our built-in warning systems detect no reason to sound alarm bells. Or perhaps our warning system has simply been put to sleep. Nonetheless, this ‘plain-speaking,’ colourless choice of words is merely dressing the wolf in a camouflage more effective than sheep’s clothing.

Just as Orwell predicted, Newspeak must be bland, emotionless, and free from meaning. It must be devoid of the life that inhabits the rich vocabulary it seeks to replace.

A flat delivery, emotionless words, a monotonous, even-toned sedative of reassuring phrases containing the empty buzz words of the week allowing us to remain blissfully indifferent to the everyday tasks of the elected godhead in recasting the country in his likeness.

Mr Howard explained that the choice contained in the brand-name ‘WorkChoices’ is either to accept the job or to turn it down (that is, unless you are unemployed, in which case you have no right to choose). Howard’s ‘Fair Pay Commission’ is modelled on the Blair Government’s system, except that in Britain, it is called the ‘Low Pay Commission.’

They are touted as Industrial Relations ‘Reforms’ a word which is cited in the Macquarie Dictionary as meaning:

the improvement or amendment of what is wrong or corrupt. To put an end to abuses, disorders, etc.

Abuses and disorders? On the introduction of these so-called ‘reforms,’ will it be necessary to re-write the dictionaries so that they agree with our experiences of this reformation?

The Minister for Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, describes these changes as ‘family-friendly’ in the same way that Phillip Ruddock described the Baxter Immigration Detention Centre as ‘family-friendly,’ even though the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights described Australian detention centres as a ‘great human tragedy’ and criticised the Federal Government for its ‘inhuman and degrading’ system.

It is in this same spirit that we refer to the bloodbath in Iraq as a ‘war,’ whereas the correct word is ‘invasion’ an invasion of ‘the willing’ against part of the ‘Axis of Evil.’ This invasion involves ‘surgical strikes’ which decimate the civilian population, referred to as ‘collateral damage;’ our ‘smart bombs’ give us a ‘humane war;’ and ‘friendly fire’ somehow takes the injury out of death. And all of this is camouflaged under the marketing-style brand names ‘Operation Infinite Justice,’ ‘Shock and Awe,’ or ‘Operation Enduring Freedom.’

We refer to cute little things like ‘daisy cutters’ which sound like delicious cup cakes, but which are:

a means of mass extermination relying on their extreme blast effects, primarily used today in combat zones such as Afghanistan as a psychological warfare agent.

And, as Wikipedia goes on to say:

The [US] Air Force successfully lobbied for the development of an even larger 13,600 kg weapon, which is known as a Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb (MOAB).

We have found those Weapons of Mass Destruction they were in the US all along.

The bear pit has become a chicken coop, where the fowl pen of political speech has been overrun by marauding weasels. Be alarmed, and be very alert! In Death Sentence, the weasel hunter, Don Watson, quotes Vaclav Havel:

The cliché organises life; it expropriates people’s identity; it becomes ruler, defence lawyer, judge and the law.

So remember, when you can no longer see the fowl, you know that the weasel has come home to roost.

James Bourne is a freelance actor/director living in Sydney. He trained in Sydney and in Paris, where he lived for over 15 years, performing, studying and working in theatre.

For all words weasely go to the website weaselwords.com.au

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.