Abusing language

Language can be abused in unwitting self-betrayal, by clothing platitudes in pretentious and trendy costume, or by plain old-fashioned murder.  Examples abound.

Sometimes our politicians use language not to convey information or opinion but to give themselves away by unintentionally revealing language, inviting praise for resonant misjudgements that betray with appalling clarity the underlying reasons for their past blunders.  Here is Tony Blair addressing Rupert Murdoch and his acolytes (of all people) in conclave in the Californian resort of Pebble Beach on 30 July 2006:

The era of tribal political leadership is over in Britain with "rampant cross-dressing" on policy set to become a permanent feature of modern politics, Tony Blair told News Corp executives… He also insisted he had "complete inner self-confidence in the analysis of the struggle" the world faced over terrorism and security.  He defended boldness in his political leadership, saying: "In these times caution is error; to hesitate is to lose", adding that his worry has been that he has not been radical enough in his leadership….

"In these conditions political leaders have to back their instinct and lead. The media climate will often be harsh. NGOs and pressure groups with single causes can be benevolent, but also can exercise a kind of malign tyranny over public debate.
"For a leader, don't let your ego be carried away by the praise or your spirit diminished by the criticism and look on each with a very searching eye. But for heaven's sake lead."

You're liable to pay a terrible price if you put unquestioning trust in your 'inner self-confidence in [your] analysis' and your 'instinct', if you act in haste on the basis of them without considering the possibility that you may be wrong, and without listening to other more cautious voices, all in your eagerness to 'lead'.  Tony Blair has paid that price too often. Yet he glories openly in his own folly, mistaking his self-betrayal for boasting.  Perhaps it went down well with Mr Murdoch.

Other politicians use trendy but cloudy language to give an impression of wisdom and sharp perception without actually saying anything.  Look out for 'deliver' and 'ownership', used in mystifying contexts, for examples of this.  New Labour people are keen to deliver all sorts of things that bear no resemblance to letters or parcels, and to extend ownership of things not widely regarded as belonging to anyone.  Now David Cameron nips nimbly onto the bandwagon in his Observer article disowning Margaret Thatcher's policies on the ANC and sanctions against South Africa:

[W]e should not pretend that our actions can quickly 'deliver' the progress we all want to see. That requires people in Africa to take ownership of their destiny.  That sense of ownership and responsibility, and the positive outcomes it creates, can be seen clearly in the political situation in South Africa today. …

Roelf Meyer, Minister for Constitutional Affairs in the last apartheid regime… was clear about the principal factor in [the post-apartheid government's] success: the fact that South African leaders took ownership of and responsibility for their situation and focused on their people's future.

Perhaps Mr Cameron's enclosure of 'deliver' in quotation marks is a sign of grace: this abuse of the word makes him uneasy.  But does he really think that Mr Meyer is telling us something radical or helpful when he attributes the South African government's 'success' (my quotation marks this time) to the fact that it used such power as it had to govern the country, and that it took decisions affecting the future (as distinct, we may assume, from the past)?  Or does the trendy language mean more than that?  If so, it eludes me.

Journalists are sometimes as guilty as politicians in their murderous assaults on our beautiful language.  Here's another treasurable example in today's Observer, from a piece by David Smith about a blogger arrested in Syria:

It is believed his detainment may be linked to articles he has written on a political website.

Leaving aside the coarsening effects of that all-too-common omission of the indispensable 'that' after 'it is believed…', probably the work of a subeditor working on the principle of old-fashioned telegrams where copy is costed by the word, what about this term detainment?  Disappointingly, the OED Online confirms that the word did once exist, indeed has a history going back to 1586, but with no recorded use (until today) since a law report in 1883, the year when my father was born.  David Smith or his sub-editor should be put in detainment.   


10 Responses

  1. Martin Kelly says:


    It's not clear from the Guardian piece whether Blair's blue sky thinking was either inside or outside the box – but as a democratic stakeholder, who has issues with the government's ownership of the service level agreement, why was Blair addressing Murdoch when he has no interest in addressing us? 

    Brian comments:  A very good question.  I suppose he finds the Dirty Digger and his chums a more appreciative audience than the rest of us. If we could assert our ownership of T Blair, perhaps we could make him deliver?

  2. John Miles says:

    You maintain the "that "is indispensible.

    I think you're wrong.

    I believe English is the only western language that can sometimes do without this pointless word.

    I'm quite sure we should congratulate ourselves.

    Brian replies:  John, please see my reply to Tim Weakley's similar but subtly different comment below.  I didn't say [..] it was always wrong to omit 'that'. 

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    Surely the That Implicit is permissible, both in speech and in all but the most formal writing, as in 'Didn't you say you were going shopping/' or 'I thought he looked somewhat miffed'?  For me, it's a matter of context: some sentences look clumsy with a 'that', and some look wrong without one.

    Brian replies:  I entirely agree.  It's all a question of having eyes and ears attuned to the language.  I don't think [..] there's any need for a 'that' in this sentence after 'think', because the omission is sanctified by usage and clarity — there's no need to go back and re-read the sentence to figure out the intended relationship between 'think' and what follows it.  The same is not true, in my necessarily subjective view, of the sentence denounced in my post above, which could have been written, and passed (or wrecked) by a subeditor, only if he or she or they had tin ears and defective eyes. 

  4. Baralbion says:

    Our beautiful language? Hmm. By what aesthetic criteria? Which languages are ugly? Similar judgements are passed on accents, the Midlands being thought the least attractive, but no-one seems to know what the objective standards are.

    Now if you're talking about what language can produce, then that's a different matter. "Ode to a Nightingale", "Canterbury Tales", P G Wodehouse, teenage slang, you can pass aesthetic judgements on all of these. But then so you can on the products of many other languages. Language is aesthetically neutral. It's how you use it that makes the difference.

    "Detainment"? Why not? Because it sounds like a Bushism, that's why.

    Brian writes:  I couldn't disagree more.  Some languages sound guttural or continuously sibilant, racked by barely pronouncable consonant clusters, difficult or effectively impossible to set to music, for example; harsh on the ear.  English is pleasant to listen to, easily set to music, with its relatively even distribution of vowels and consonants and its pleasing variety (combining Germanic and Latin roots, mixing simple monosyllables — or short words — with sonorous circumlocutions).  But even more 'glorious' is the extraordinary subtlety of English, with its enormous vocabulary, permitting infinitely fine distinctions and gradations of meaning and undertone.  Very few other langauages can match it in that respect.  It has nothing to do with accents, any more than the crassness of 'detainment' has anything to do with Bush. Either you can hear and sense it or you can't. It's just regrettable, I think, that the beautiful gift of a glorious langua franca that these small islands have spread all over the globe should be so infernally difficult for foreigners to learn — as I imagine Peter H. will confirm?

  5. Carl Lundquist says:

    Oddly enough, detainment is a word listed in the dictionary [American Heritage] as a noun formation from detain.  

    English?  Why certainly it is a beautiful language — after all doesn't God speak it?

    Brian adds:  'Detainment' is of course in the full OED, as quoted in my post.  It's also in the big 2-volume Shorter OED in small print as 'Late 16th century'.  I'm not too surprised that it's in the American Heritage dictionary without any indication of obsolescence or rarity:  a national variant of English that routinely uses words like 'transportation' instead of 'transport' (with the accent on the trans), elevator for lift, burglarize for burgle, and automobile for car, obviously doesn't think twice about detainment for detention.  It's not even any longer:  just uglier and more stilted.  It sounds like a formation from Latin but I doubt very much whether it is.  (Having said that, though, I'd be the last person to cast aspersons on American English which is often so pungent, racy, funny and expressive, and has given us in the rest of the English-speaking world so many gems, from wigwam to carpetbagger, movie, pork barrel and gerrymander.)

  6. Baralbion says:

    All that you say , Brian, is undoubtedly true about the language of which we have been fortunate enough to be born native speakers. It's just that I wouldn't use the word beatiful to describe any particular language (although there might well be a case for saying that all languages are beautiful). Many people will perhaps tell you that Italian is a beautiful  language and that German is not because one seems to have softer sounds than the other. But what makes sibilant sounds more beautiful than guttural ones?

    English is indeed a difficult language for foreign speakers to master, particularly for those whose own languages have different alphabets. But then, in my experience, all foreign languages are difficult to learn.

    And, oh, by the way, Carl, I understood that God spoke Arabic.

    Brian comments:  You ask: "what makes sibilant sounds more beautiful than guttural ones?"  But I didn't suggest that they were.  Each, if a main characteristic of a language, tends to make it ugly.  Spoken (or sung) French, Russian, Spanish, Italian and English are pretty obviously easy on the ear; German, Polish, Dutch, Afrikaans distinctly less so.  English is unusual in both sounding mellifluous and possessing a fantastically rich vocabulary and expressiveness. According to one fairly scholarly estimate , there are "approximately" 988,968 words in English, compared with fewer than 100,000 in French[1]. "Beautiful" seems an uncontroversial description;  "glorious" not an overstatement.  Those of us for whom it's a first language are fantastically lucky.

    Oh, and by the way, I thought God spoke Aramaic?  Appropriately or otherwise, it's of course a Semitic language.  Hebrew would be another obvious candidate.   (Actually, it depends whose God we're talking about, or rather which God is talking to whom.) 

    [1] "The statistics of English are astonishing. Of all the world's languages (which now number some 2,700), it is arguably the richest in vocabulary. The compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words; and a further half-million technical and scientific terms remain uncatalogued. According to traditional estimates, neighboring German has a vocabulary of about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000, including such Franglais as le snacque-barre and le hit-parade."  —  Robert McCrum, William Cran, & Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. New York: Penguin, 1992: 1 

  7. Peter Harvey says:


    It is a curious fact that speakers of any language will tell you that theirs is beautiful, mellifluous, expressive and so on and that others sound strange, ugly, etc. One's own language always seems natural. When students ask me why English does something in a certain way, I ask why in Spanish a floor is masculine and a wall is feminine. Of course there is no answer, but it makes the point that judgements about language are entirely subjective. No language is inherently more beautiful, more logical, natural or whatever than any other.

    The lingua (sic) franca of the world is largely American English and the spread of English at all is a matter of chance. In some ways English is difficult to learn but in others, irregular verbs and lack of case endings for example, it is easy. That is true of all languages.

    If you quote vocabulary size you should try comparing apples with other apples, not with pears. The OED lists a huge number of obsolete and archaic words but these are removed from dictionaries in other languages. How many of the OED's entries do you regularly use? Try scrolling through it some time and see how many consecutive words you have never heard of. Think of the TV game Call My Bluff, which relied on the unknown entries for its format. German has a system of verbal prefixes that allows great flexibility and invention in word formation aopart from the famous compound nouns, but obviously these do not appear in dictionaries.

    Detainment  is recognised by the COD and is a perfectly good word, as is normalcy, which once sparked a furore in the USA. If you don't like it, don't use it.

    Singing affects language in different ways. Italian words always end in vowels that can be extended indefinitely. English words often end in consonants, so it is important for a choir all to finish together.

    I was brought up to believe that God spoke the language of an educated English gentleman of the early seventeenth century.

    Brian adds:  I thought you would comment on these lines!  I did stop to wonder whether I thought English beautiful just because it's my first language, but decided that it wasn't so, partly because it's easy to judge the relative mellifluousness (mellifluity?) of other languages that one doesn't speak, so it's not just a matter of familiarity: and because English, along with the romance languages, is widely regarded, not just by English speakers, as more pleasant to listen to or to sing than more guttural languages with lots of sibilants and consonant clusters. On the question of the huge vocabulary of English, the fact that there are thousand of extant words that I (and even you) never use doesn't mean that they aren't available: and you and I probably do actually use many more words when speaking English than are available to those speaking other languages, as numerous studies have confirmed.  It's not just a matter of counting dictionary entries:  it's also a matter of counting the words used in the literature of different languages and in records of the spoken language.  But I don't believe you are seriously denying that English has a huge vocabulary compared with virtually any other language, or that this gives it a flexibility and subtlety that are to be treasured.  Or can't you bring yourself to acknowledge anything positive even about our language?

  8. Peter Harvey says:

    German, which has its consonant clusters and sibilants, has produced fine sung music in various genres: church music, opera, Lieder. Arabic, which is very guttural, can be a very fine-sounding language (as I know, having sat through interminable meetings in that language without understanding a single word of it.) On the other hand, the time stress of English makes it sound strange to speakers of syllable-strressed languages such as Spanish.

    I don’t see languages as positive or negative any more than a biologist would regard a lion more or less positively than a whale. They simply exist and are different, devoid of any intrinsic relative value.

    Why do you have to introduce your Nationalist philosophy even into language?

  9. Baralbion says:

    What can I say other than Right On?

    Your point about genders, Peter. A floor in Spanish is masculine and a wall feminine presumably because that’s what they were in Latin. That of course only puts the question one stage further back. But could it not have been that way back in Indo-European or beyond there were words that clearly indicated things that were indeed masculine and feminine, men and women, for example? And that any other words that looked or sounded like such words took on the same gender? It’s unfortunate that the classifications of masculine and feminine ever took hold. Much better to have called them Type A, Type B and, where there’s a neuter, Type C nouns, or some such.


  10. John Miles says:

    Why all the fuss about "detainment?"

    It’s a pefectly rspectable word, and, for an amateur philologist, a mildly interesting one.

    The "de-" prefix is straightforward Latin, and means "down."

    The "-tain-" bit comes from the Latin "ten-eo." and means "hold." We get "tenant" and "tenure" from this root.

    In Latin the "ten" turns to "tin" in compounds, whence we get "continence" and "impertinent."

    But "-tain-" never occurs in Latin, and suggests that we get "retain" through Norman French; cf "attain," retain," "contain," "maintain," etc.

    "Ment-um" is a perfectly good Latin suffix, and we still use Latin words like "argument-um," "sacrament-um" "docunent-um," etc.

    And "-ment" has become a reasonably normal English suffix, eg "enforcement."

    But there is no Latin word rooted in "teneo" and suffixed in "-mentum."

    So we probably got "retain" from the Normans, who got it from the Latin, and stuck a "ment," which we got from Latin, on its end.; cf "attainment," and "containment."

    So do you say "detainment" or "detention?"

    I would tentatively vote for "detainment"


    Sheer prejudice:

    As one who fancies himself as a bit of a classical scholar – and I know there aren’t many of us left – I instinctively try to steer clear from Greek and Latin words, whenever there are sensible options available.

    I know it’s interesting, but is it really all that important?

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