Outside the realm of high art, language is intended to convey meaning. Ideally, it should do so accurately. Some writers and speakers betray this ideal, and use language as a sham to mask an intellectual void; or worse, as a stalking horse for quite different ideas they dare not acknowledge.

The world is awash with examples of the first sort – empty rhetoric dressed up in false finery, or vacuous new-Age gush, or the yawning post-modern fashion of abstraction piled on abstraction – all devoid of real content. These are the empty calories, the fast food of modern discourse. They are the staple of cheap magazines, talk-back radio and bad art criticism.

More interesting is the second sort: speech which serves to disguise the thing being discussed. Depending on circumstances, it may be called tact, or diplomacy or doublespeak or lying. The proper description depends on the speaker’s purpose.

Tact sets out to avoid giving offence. It suppresses or disguises an unhappy truth to spare the feelings of another. It is falsehood in the service of kindness; a down-payment on future favour. When tact is lifted from the personal to the national scale, it is called diplomacy.

Euphemism does not directly suppress the truth, but disguises it by substituting gentle words for harsher ones. Its intention is benign, if somewhat fey. Its excesses of delicacy inspired Dr Bowdler to strip Shakespeare of any questionable content, removing, as he said, its ‘blemishes’. Euphemism is especially needed where body parts and body functions are the subject: a cheap frock for recognised facts.

Tact is kind; diplomacy is useful; euphemism is harmless and sometimes entertaining. By contrast, doublespeak is dishonest and dangerous.

CRIKEY: Read more on the website here: http://www.crikey.com.au/articles/2005/03/007-0001-4567.html

Meanwhile, we’ve heard indirectly from the former Vanstone staffer Andrew Kirk who disputes our account of his showdown with Burnside on Friday night:

Just for your info, Andrew Kirk did attempt to defend himself against Burnside’s verballing, but he was not interested in a debate at the dinner at the time. He did agree to a public debate with Kirk on the issues he raised concerning detention policy.

We will be trying to arrange it soon through the Liberal Forum. For the record, Kirk told Burnside the Government operates detention policy entirely within the law.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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