As a rule, dictionary definitions make linguists nervous. Why? Meaning is complicated. No matter how many senses you list in the dictionary (see the absurd, baroque spectacle that is set), meaning is this soapy fish which defies even the most thorough attempts at grasping. For instance, what is it about the word education that makes it seem more ‘formal’, or ‘official’, than learning? Why is it more appropriate to call someone a shit bloke in some circumstances, and a dickhead others? Or, more relevantly, when does a cull become a cull?

This was precisely the question put by esteemed philosopher of language and Western Australian Minister for Fisheries, Troy Buswell. Remember back in December, when he stated that his proposed plan to bait and shoot sharks over three metres in length did not “represent a culling of sharks,” but was instead a “targeted, localised shark mitigation strategy”? So, if a policy of shooting sharks over three metres in length is not a cull, what is? On ABC radio, Buswell made it clear.

A cull is when you go up over Lake Gregory and for very sound environmental reasons kill thousands of horses.

Culling then, according to Buswell, is an act of indiscriminate, en masse killing. The problem however, is that this isn’t borne out by the dictionary.

The word ‘cull’ ultimate derives from the Latin verb colligere, meaning ‘to choose, select’. Coming via Old French, the word entered English in the eleventh century, with a similar meaning to the original Latin—to pick out, to collect, to gather—a meaning which has persisted to the present day. To cull, then, if we accept the dictionary as the arbiter of meaning, is to purposefully select a portion of some animal population to be destroyed, generally for environmental reasons. With the requirement that only sharks over three metres be killed, and all others released, this would seem like a textbook case of a cull. So why the avoidance of the term?

This is where our mate, the faithful dictionary, falls down. A politician’s vocabulary is ruled more by public opinion than fidelity to the language he’s speaking. Buswell well understands that in popular usage the word cull means precisely the indiscriminate slaughter that he doesn’t want to imply. Accordingly, he opts for the hopelessly euphemistic ‘localised shark mitigation strategy,’ the latest in an illustrious pedigree which includes other famous political euphemisms; ‘servicing a target’ for bombing; Bill Clinton’s ‘didn’t inhale’ for inhale; or the – ahem – bombastic ‘spontaneous energetic disassembly’ for an explosion.

The aim of the euphemism game is to boil the shit out of language until it’s so amorphous that no-one could possibly turn around and beat you with it. Interestingly enough, cull itself can be, and is, used as a euphemism for kill, with the implication that the act is responsible, or has good intentions, instead of senseless slaughter. So ‘shark mitigation strategy’ is a double-euphemism, a double-boiled gruel so reduced that the colourless, indistinct granules of meaning left over decompose into smaller particles before you can get at them.

Let’s call a spade, a spade; and anyone who uses the phrase ‘localised shark mitigation strategy,’ is a spade.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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