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Tortured Language

The harsh and brutal cowardice of newspapers

In the age of Dubya, it was hard to say whether enemy combatants or the English language were tortured more: the stream of torture euphemisms was in constant and heavy flow, not unlike the flow of water that near-drowned our waterboarding victims.Anyone interested in prisoner or language abuse had a bursting notebook, spilling over with terms such as extraordinary rendition, stress positions, special methods, sleep adjustment, exceptional interrogation techniques, harsh interrogation techniques, and alternative interrogation techniques.But at this point, I can't even get that worked up about these lexical evasions, which were exposed as transparent horseshit years ago. What boggles my mind and grates my cheese is that this topic is still up for serious discussion. For that, we don't need to send thank you notes to the Bushies, but to the newsies-major newspaper editors who continue to show a sad, fearful, money-minded lack of testicular fortitude.For example, get a load of this interview with Washington Post congressional reporter Paul Kane, who was recently asked the reasonable question, "Aren't you guys continuing to catapult Bush-era propaganda when you use such NewSpeak euphemisms for what we all (finally) know was clearly torture, based on U.S. and International law?" Kane's response:You can't call someone a convicted murderer until he/she has actually been convicted.Understand? Get it?The reason we say "alleged" murder and things like that is for our own legal protection. So we can't be sued for libel. Take a look at financial reports on the newspaper business. We're not going to do anything that leads to us losing any more money these days.Just let the condescending attitude and desperate logic sink in for a moment… OK, now brace yourself for more word games, and I don't mean Boggle or Pig Latin. Check out this solemn announcement from The New York Times' public editor Clark Hoyt: "A linguistic shift took place in this newspaper as it reported the details of how the Central Intelligence Agency was allowed to strip Al Qaeda prisoners naked, bash them against walls, keep them awake for up to 11 straight days, sometimes with their arms chained to the ceiling, confine them in dark boxes and make them feel as if they were drowning."

Sounds momentous! Well, until you read the article. Hoyt explains that the Times has, as of this April, switched from harsh to brutal in their don't-call-it-torture-related stories, a language change with about the same impact as calling my dog a good doggie instead of a good puppy. Bizarrely, Hoyt is content to list acts such as stripping, bashing, sleep-depriving, and waterboarding in extremely frank terms, yet somehow feels the choice of brutal as opposed to harsh is significant, and that the grey lady deserves a medal on the chest for taking such a bold step.Now, I'm a language columnist, dictionary collector, and all-around wordnut, so I can certainly appreciate an arcane, trivial discussion of word choices. It actually interests me that flobbage and gleet are old synonyms for phlegm. I collect expressions like "The Mr. Spock of wine bloggers". I tried to convince my editor to let me write a column about real place names like Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. So I am up for academic discussions of word trivia, but holy God…even a word geek like myself can't quite geek out over harsh versus brutal, not when the real issue is torture versus bullshit.Unlike the watered-down word pirate, torture still has bite and a clear meaning, which is why the average person has had no trouble at all identifying waterboarding, stress positions, harsh interrogation techniques, and what-have-you as torture. It's about as tricky as telling a dog from a cat or a cat from a meerkat-unless you happen to work for a major American newspaper.This comical cowardice-which the WaPo guy frankly admits is all about money-is surely another reason newspapers are hemorrhaging cash in the first place. When prestigious newspapers act like scared rabbits, why in the name of Zeus would we pay for their transparent twaddle?
Illustrations by Will Etling

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