Designer words

An edited version of Roosevelt’s Infamy Speech, showing the original wording “a date which will live in world history”.

Linguistic Relativity, commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, states that the limits of our language are the limits of our thoughts. Without the words to think an idea, how can we have it? — So goes the question.

Although a debate exists around Linguistic Relativity; not so on whether how an idea is expressed affects how it is recieved. For example, there is the ‘Allow-Forbid Asymmetry’ first outlined by Daniel Rugg in 1941; when asked “Do you think that the United States should allow public speeches against democracy?”, only 21% of respondents said ‘yes’, but if the question was rephrased in reverse with the word ‘forbid’, 38% said ‘no’.

Politicians know this and it’s so obvious as to be barely worth commenting on. From Ceaser to Chaves, they knew the power of rhetoric and re-framing a question. That said, we are now having a reinvigorated debate about where and when it’s okay to change vocabulary for political ends. Critics of same-sex marriage talk about ‘redefining marriage’ but proponents will return back on them, accusing them of playing with words. Equally, Conservatives accuse Liberals of ‘redefinition’ when they use terms like ‘undocumented’ instead of ‘illegal’ to describe people who have entered the country through illegal channels.

Word invention is a clear case of design in politics. In much the same way that a politician would roll up their sleeves to suggest hard work, a speech writer selects a word from two synonyms because of what it suggests and this goes equally for when a speechwriter is able to craft a new word with the needed implications and insinuations.

These new words carry with them the potential to make political debates more inclusive, thorough and welcoming. This should be welcomed by all side. Equally, they carry the risk that they alienate an audience or that they are used to divide people where the words say more about the people that speak them than those who hear them.

What we need for these new words — especially those specifically forged with alternative connotations — is a test for whether we should adopt or reject them. I suggest that the standard should be accuracy, objectivity and accessibility.


Accuracy

Does the term accurately describe whatever the incumbent term does? Does it change the reference group, intentionally or unintentionally? Does it suggest or insinuate something untrue or inaccurate?

Accuracy is critical to any political neologism as part of a wider insistence on honest debate and integrity. Although a new term may be persuasive, if that’s only true because it is misleading then it must be rejected and left to the side.

An example here would be ‘Unauthorised’ versus ‘Undocumented’ immigrants; the former passing and the later failing. The target object is the set of people who have entered the country not via legal methods. They are certainly all unauthorised, however, many of them will be documented. They may have a visa which they overstayed, they may have entitlement to local services or a document about their denied status. Their entry could well have being undocumented by the government, but much like the term ‘illegal’ this applies to the entry and not the person. Calling them ‘undocumented’ is dishonest and designed to suggest that getting documents would solve the problems— which is not truthful.

Objectivity

Is the term blatantly partisan? Is it being used to designate membership of a political position? Is it a badge of honour?

If the term isn’t neutral — that’s okay. It may be bias one way or another and that’s probably the point of its design, selection and application. What’s not okay, is inventing words as a method for splitting people into groups where the intended affect of the word is to signal to others that the speakers ‘gets it’. It’s a type of secret handshake and a form of dogwhistle politics.

A very good test for whether a word is objective is whether or not you could imagine that word ever being used to argue the counterpoint. Does the use of the word presuppose the conclusion?

For example, in the UK there is program to shoot and poison badgers in an attempt to reduce Bovine TB. This is officially called a ‘badger cull’ but opponents will fairly call it a ‘badger shoot’ or ‘killing badgers’. These are reasonable terms that, although not neutral on the issue are objective but not being used to designate membership of a group. On the other hand, a term like ‘badger holocaust’ or ‘badger murder’ isn’t necessarily inaccurate but so unnecessarily partisan that its use isn’t communication by the speaker, but designation of the speaker as a ‘true believer’. No one could reasonably argue for a ‘badger holocaust’.

Shun these terms before they becomes a litmus test.

Accessibility

Does the term make sense to any newcomer? To the uninitiated, does it sound like it has a different meaning? Is the term just jargon or being used to confuse or exclude?

The term may be being used to confuse and alienate a listener in the hope that this audience member will stop listening or, better still, go away. Again, this doesn’t serve the debate and aims to defeat enemies through dishonest and unintellectual tactics — denoting a lack of faith in the essential argument.

Jargon is its own issue and we don’t need it. TLAs (three letter acronyms), wonkish phrases and ‘insider’ terms just serve to close and reduce those who can enter the debate.

If the term just sounds silly or wrong to a normal listener then what’s the point? Don’t use a phrase that will you sound silly by extension, you’ll be less persuasive and others won’t engage with the substance of what you’re saying.

One example of confusing terms is the number of letters in the names of groups advocating for people of alternative sexualities and genders. These groups began in the 1980s with titles based on ‘LGBT’ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) which took some time to be accepted within the community. Of late, the names have become inaccessible to the uninitiated with some groups adding letters such as I (Intersex), Q (Queer/Questioning), A (Asexual/Ally) and P (Pansexual) and the symbol + (approximately ‘and others’). It’s positive to include people into these organisations but as a matter of speech and prose, it is currently unwieldy and inaccessible. Perhaps, over time, a shift will occur where a newer term becomes comprehensible, but this will require consensus from activists.

On the right, terms used to discuss war and conflict very often fail to pass the accessibility test. There’s great talk of ‘surgical strikes’, ‘insurgents’, ‘neutralised’, ‘strategic locations’ and ‘collateral damage’. The military is rife with jargon but politicians use this language not to explain but to obscure. It’s accurate and objective, however, the goal is to make an audience member’s head hurt so they don’t look any further.


While new words can make one feel like they’re living out of their time, these terms should be embraced and understood, no matter how constructed. People have been making up new words since they made up the first one.

But, if you’d like to know whether you should adopt someone’s neologism, for whatever reason, I suggest you do ask whether it’s truthful, whether it’s objective and whether it’s even understandable.

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