Washington, D.C., is to the English language what Paris is to fashion. Every season, perfectly good words go out of style and new ones are trotted out on the national runway of rhetoric. Some words are considered so worn out, politically incorrect or laden with baggage that they can no longer be used in public discourse. When that happens, people like me find ourselves scrambling for suitable synonyms.
That was the case a few years ago with “sustainable development”. I operated the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development at the U.S. Department of Energy, helping communities understand and apply the practice. Before long, signals came down from Capitol Hill that the words “sustainable development” had become the kiss of death for any program that used them. The term “smart growth” was invented to take “sustainability’s” place.
More recently, Congress has avoided using the word “climate” in legislation that clearly is meant in part to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions – legislation such as the “Energy Security and Independence Act of 2007”. The Bush people call torture “enhanced interrogation” and call kidnapping “rendition”. Healthy Forests and Clear Skies became the titles of the Bush Administration’s programs to cut trees and pollute the air, respectively.
Our elected leaders aren’t alone in manipulating the English language. Lobbyists and extremists, Left and Right, regularly play the game, too, to obscure facts, incite emotions, insult opponents or get attention from the media, where conflict is red meat.
Coal executives try to persuade us there’s such a thing as “clean coal” and oil executives talk about “energy independence” when they really mean more drilling. In 2003, Orwell protégé Frank Luntz counseled in a confidential memo that the Administration and conservatives should stop using the term “global warming” because it was too frightening. Luntz suggested that Republicans refer to themselves as “conservationists” rather than “environmentalists,” since the latter term, in Luntz’s view, is associated with tree-hugging and extremism. Continued...