Hands up if prior to it being enforced, the term no-fly zone made you imagine a clear blue sky, free of the nasty bombers shelling the people of Libya. As it turns out, and surprisingly for a good many of us, no-fly zone means no such thing. The skies are still full of bombers shelling Libya – now they’re NATO-approved ones out to quash one side of a civil war, whether this means hitting other planes or targets on the ground.
Whether the no-fly zone itself is justifiable or not, what’s interesting here (to us anyway) is the use and abuse of language to whitewash affairs and make things appear less harmful than they are. Political rhetoric and military-speak are full of this – terms like quantitative easing (printing money) and collateral damage (killing civilians) are just a few that litter our daily news.
And business language is no less culpable. Particularly when times are hard and news isn’t great, businesses tend to fall back on the kind of corporate ‘spin’ that leaves people dizzy. Instead of laying people off, they downsize, restructure and even rationalise the workforce. Is this kind of euphemism ever justifiable? Does language like this usefully soften the blow or just get in the way of clear communication?
A few weeks ago we tweeted about the coroner in the 7/7 inquest criticising the emergency services for their language. In her view they’d used jargon that may well have stood in the way of clear communication and quick action on the day – a case if there ever was one of how plain language can literally save lives.
Now, choosing gentler words to paint events in a more positive light isn’t exactly a case of life or death. But surely it’s better to be straight-talking than to ever be accused of being misleading. One only has to think of the likes of Mo Mowlam and Warren Buffet to be reminded that politicians and business leaders who call a spade a spade are respected by a good many people for telling it like it is.
The simple truth is that clear, straight-talking language lends an authority to messages that indirectness and spin never will. And people are much more likely to be sympathetic to a cause if they don’t feel they’ve been duped – politicians and businesses alike would do well to remember this.