Tell it like it isn't

"Bland" language can hide much meaning, argue Paul Evans and Milly Getachew

Last month, the Iranian military adviser General Yahya Rahim Safavi commented that the demise of the Syrian Hezbollah commander Imad Mughnieh had hastened "the certain death of the Zionist regime". Mahmoud Ahmadinejad then chipped in, denouncing Israel as both a "savage animal" and a "dirty microbe", language that provoked a predictably angry response. What end does such bombastic rhetoric serve?

The intended audience matters. Iran does not have bilateral relations with Israel, and is indifferent to its response. Rather, it seeks to position itself as a leader of the Muslim world, and perpetuate the idea of Israel as an ideological cancer in the Middle East.

Western diplomacy, however, has historically rested upon a coded form of communication in which words are imbued with a significance detached from their ordinary usage. Alienating the citizens that it purports to speak for, this language is, in its own way, as dishonest and insidious as that of Ahmadinejad. Yet it has utility: the apparently bland white noise of diplomacy sets a landscape in which the gravity of deviations, intended or otherwise, becomes clear to all those involved.

Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British envoy to the United States, has decades of experience in decoding euphemisms. "If talks are described as 'frank', that means a blazing row; if 'candid', a smaller row," he says. "If you are 'disappointed', you're pissed off as hell. At the UN, 'all necessary means' indicates war." Lapses in this prosaic dialogue represent flashpoints in diplomatic relations. Nikita Khrushchev's threat to "bury" the west (though perhaps a mistranslation) and Ronald Reagan's denunciation of the Soviet "evil empire" took on great symbolism.

The more colourful pronouncements are rarely intended for the wider world, contends Professor Margot Light of the international relations department at the London School of Economics. "Diplomatic language is necessary to keep channels open, but speeches like these are often not made for an international audience," she says. World leaders continue to exhibit an apparent naivety, reflected in how, "even today, Putin uses language that is shocking in the west, and he genuinely doesn't realise the effect".

The use of metaphor in angrier rhetoric is interesting. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes argued that when a judge describes a criminal as a "monster", he is doing something rather dangerous: abstracting that individual from the spectrum of humanity, and the moral responsibility that accompanies it. Susan Sontag similarly warned that metaphor in the context of conflict can be abused by governments, obscuring important distinctions by using evocative terms.

When politicians speak about other nations, they inevitably speak directly to them. When leaders are blind to this, as when their rhetoric refuses the possibility of dialogue, they do their own people a disservice.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it