BOB GARFIELD: As we've heard, some people think Colin Powell is a tortured figure because he's unable to influence policy in Iraq. Others think the word torture should be reserved for actual torture, such as the detainees in Abu Ghraib prison were subjected to in Iraq. Still others believe that those detainees were not tortured but simply "abused," and that torture is something out of Saddam's dungeons or a scene from Marathon Man. In an op-ed in Newsday this week, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg mused over the invocation of the word torture -- much as he examines the use and abuse of language in his new book Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times. He joins us now. Geoff, welcome to On the Media.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Oh, well thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, let's start with your title. It would suggest that words are being used by the government or by the government's critics these days as weapons of mass deception. Do you think that's true?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Yeah, I think language is always used in a way that can be deceptive. There's never been an age that was so wary of the dangers of linguistic manipulation or so on the alert against deceptive language, and at the same time, I think there's never been an age that was so easily manipulated by language. And, and in a funny way, those go together, I think.
BOB GARFIELD:Well, actually you've anticipated my next question, because discussion of word choice has swirled so much during the last year or so. The President's use of the word "crusade," the way he says "nucular" instead of nuclear, that perversely-named Patriot Act, Freedom Fries -- maybe it's not unusual for language to be manipulated in times of war, but do you recall a time when it's been as debated as much as it has been now?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: What's new I think is that people are very alert to these little fillips of language, the way it can be tilted one way or the other, and at the same time I think very vulnerable. What advertisers learned a long time ago is that the more sophisticated you are, the easier it is to gull you into one or another position. It doesn't matter if you think you're hip to what's going on. Language still works on you.
BOB GARFIELD:Well, give me some examples of doublespeak that we recognize as doublespeak but which nonetheless manages to press our emotional buttons.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: For six months after 9/11, Bush was using the phrase "evildoer" like it was a kind of pronoun - you know, the evildoer said this, the evildoer said that. And it's something that people were aware of as a deliberate linguistic maneuver, but at the same time it did frame the issue in a certain way of us and them - of good and evil and so on that was nonetheless really important in shaping the terms of the debate about terrorism. There's another kind of language that, to my mind, or at least from a linguist's point of view is almost more interesting, which is the way certain suppositions and assumptions are built into the words we use so that we don't question them, we don't think to ask is that manipulative or whatever. You know, the other day I did a search on the word "values," and I looked in the New York Times and the Washington Post over the last five years, and it turned out that the phrase "conservative values" was anywhere from four to five times as frequent as the word "liberal values." That is to say, values basically belong to conservatives. The word belongs to conservatives, even in the so-called "liberal press."
BOB GARFIELD:You can actually co-opt our whole thinking process on how we respond to words if, if you're rigorous enough in invoking the same word again and again and again -- staying on message, in other words?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Yeah, that, that's part of it, and part of it is the way these words just build certain assumptions. Take the phrase "regime change." The interesting thing is that the word "regime" itself encodes a certain point of view. If you call something a regime, you are likely to mean that it's authoritarian. You also mean that in some sense it's unstable. It's the Latin Americans who have democratic regimes. In Western Europe they don't have democratic regimes. They have democracies. It's just an assumption that's built into the word itself which transcends these partisan distinctions that everybody's so interested in.
BOB GARFIELD:In one of the essays of your book you make a distinction between linguistic gaffes that are either typos or "thinkos," and you use as an example the President's mispronunciation of nuclear. Tell me more.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Nuclear is really no harder to pronounce than likelier. And what's more, this is a word that Bush's father pronounced correctly, that Bush would have grown up hearing pronounced properly, whether around the table in Kennebunkport or when he was at Andover or when he was at Yale, and at a certain point, I think it became for him a conscious choice. I call it a, a "faux-Bubba" pronunciation. To my mind, when somebody like that says the word, it doesn't count the same way it does when Homer Simpson says it as nucular. It's rather a way of saying you know-- I got my finger on this button, and I'll call these things whatever I damn well please.
BOB GARFIELD:We've spent a lot of time on this show considering the effect of the repeated use of shocking imagery, and the effect of those images over time being denuded of their impact. Does that also happen with words? Are there powerful words that cease to be powerful through constant repetition and sort of sloganizing?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Certainly that happens to all words. I mean it happens in two ways. On the one hand, a powerful word can be defused and neutralized sometimes, and, and often that's a deliberate effort by one side to neutralize the power that another word can have. You can hear it in the way the right, for instance, has taken over, neutralized words like "discrimination," "bias," "hate speech,"--
BOB GARFIELD: And leave us not forget "terrorism."
GEOFFREY NUNBERG:Terrorism is a very powerful word that, you know, from its root had this notion of terror, and in early days of the sublime attached to it. It's just a word that has no real force any more.
BOB GARFIELD: Everything is called terrorism, so is, is therefore nothing--
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- terrorism any more?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG:Well, there's something to be said for reserving those words for only things that merit them. After 9/11, for example, people were looking for language that would render the genuine horror and distress that they felt, and they'd go for these words, they'd say oh, it was shocking, it was terrible, it was like a battlefield -- and these were words that seemed to have been denuded of any power they might once have had. And particularly in a media environment that feeds on that kind of indignation and tries to turn every school board decision and every little injustice into an occasion for enormous indignation and horror and so on and so forth -- the language necessarily just becomes washed out.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Geoff Nunberg, thank you very much.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Geoffrey Nunberg is the author of Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times. [MUSIC]