UNSPEAK by Steven Poole


How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality
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A sharply articulated, well-documented exposé of the political and economic manipulation of language.

British journalist Poole (Trigger Happy, 2000) sets forth an array of pernicious examples of what he calls Unspeak, the sneaky use of feel-good euphemism that tends to cancel any opposition (e.g., “pro-life”). Differentiating it from Orwell’s Newspeak, which excised undesirable words from the lexicon or renamed them for political propaganda, and Doublethink, which is outright lying, the author defines Unspeak as “a name that smuggles in a political opinion . . . a whole partisan argument is packed into a sound bite.” He devotes chapters to such large, unwieldy themes as “terror” or “freedom,” delineating within each some of the more egregious examples of Unspeak in Britain and America. Under the rubric “community,” for example, Poole discusses at length the ways in which politicians invoke the word’s warm, fuzzy nostalgia in order to include by exclusion: e.g., using the phrase “Muslim community” already presupposes that it is separate from the mainstream, defensive and all of one mind. “The term ‘asylum seeker’ had gradually replaced ‘refugee,’ ” he writes, “shifting the emphasis from what a person was fleeing to the demands he was making on the country he arrived in.” Blair and Bush say “I believe” rather than “I think,” vanquishing reason and facts with faith. Poole persuasively demonstrates how the term “global warming” has devolved into the less terrifying “climate change.” He traces the tweaking of genetically engineered food, first to “genetically modified,” then to the more positive-sounding “genetically enhanced,” and finally to “the shiny new term ‘biotechnology foods’ . . . genes (a Word to Lose) could be forgotten.” The author heats up when taking on the “march of freedom,” or the “global struggle against violent extremism,” a more virtuous-seeming contest than the “war on terror.” He offers reasoned criticism of machinations by governments, media and interest groups, both left and right.

A necessary public service in prose occasionally rendered sarcastic by the absurdity of the material. Fans of Orwell, take heart.

Pub Date: May 10th, 2006
ISBN: 0-8021-1825-9
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2006


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