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.