The Conservatives under David Cameron talk a lot about "social welfare". It sounds warm and fuzzy, but what do they mean by it? The phrase arose alongside "the welfare state", implying that the well-being of all was the responsibility of all: a responsibility discharged through the operations of government. Yet what it describes for the new Tories is almost the opposite: an intention to farm off some of the duty of ensuring welfare to other, voluntary organisations. Under the friendly-sounding cloak of "social", it expresses a wish to save money by abrogating governments' duty towards the unfortunate. (Iain Duncan Smith revealed the rationale when he boasted on the Today programme a few weeks ago that he had identified "four paths to poverty". Is no one born into poverty? Is poverty merely the result of foolishly choosing the wrong "path"? If so, perhaps the government is not obliged to correct the problem.) So "social welfare", conceived as a means of widening the scope of the state's debt to its citizens, becomes recast as a means of limiting it. Used in this way, it encodes a general view that the government is separate from society: that the government should never be thought of, even idealistically, as the expression and executor of society's wishes.
This is a subtle example of what I call Unspeak in political language. On the lips of Cameron and Duncan Smith, a phrase such as "social welfare" smuggles in a whole unspoken argument about the proper role of any government, trying to bypass the listener's critical faculties and work by repetitive, stealthy persuasion. Apparently just a neutral name for something, it attempts pre-emptively to frame any debate in its own biased terms. One of the plainest examples of Unspeak originated in debates over abortion in the United States in the 1970s. Anti-abortionists had originally defined their position as defending the "right to life". Those in favour of legal abortion then rhetorically softened their preference by inventing the slogan "pro-choice", focusing their argument on a woman's autonomy. Cleverly, their opponents rapidly responded with a new slogan, "pro-life". Who would say they were anti-life? Surely "life" is more important than mere "choice", as though one were selecting muesli in a supermarket? And so a clash of Unspeaks was born. The strategy repeats itself with other issues: consider the contemporary battle over taxation in the US: Democrats refer to George W Bush's budgetary measures as "tax cuts"; the Republicans say "tax relief", as though tax were an illness or a burden, the lifting of which were a consummation devoutly to be wished.
As can be seen from the liberal invention of "pro-choice", Unspeak is not the exclusive preserve of Conservatives. This is confirmed by the fecund work of Tony Blair's speechwriters over the past nine years. With its phatic appeals to a largely fictional thing called "community", its halo of faith and protestations of sincerity (notice how Blair nearly always says "I believe" rather than "I think") and its denuded, choppy syntax, Blair's rhetoric is a gold mine of Unspeak. Perhaps the most striking government invention is the "antisocial behaviour order". What actually constitutes antisocial behaviour is legally vague.
One might suppose that all crime is, by definition, antisocial. A criminal is prosecuted by an agent of the Queen precisely because he or she has offended against not just one individual but the whole of society. Labour's introduction of a category of "antisocial behaviour" works alongside its tabloid-pleasing concentration on "victims' rights" in the judicial process to dilute this essential truth. Meanwhile, it enables the government to extend legislation into the moral sphere while limiting any concomitant worsening of crime statistics. One is left to wonder whether Blair's relentless attempts to limit citizens' rights to jury trial, or to silence, or to freedom from arbitrary imprisonment without trial, should themselves be called antisocial measures.
Perhaps you are wondering whether this analysis of Unspeak sounds a little like a conspiracy theory. Are there really little grey men sitting in secret offices, deciding on the precise language they will use to bamboozle the public? As it happens, there are. Take the case of the US pollster Frank Luntz, who has produced a series of memos advising the Republican Party on the correct language to use for various issues. One such document treats environmental matters: "the terminology in the upcoming environmental debate needs refinement . . . It's time for us to start talking about 'climate change' instead of global warming . . . 'Climate change' is less frightening than 'global warming'. As one focus-group par- ticipant noted, climate change 'sounds like you're going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale'. While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge." Quite so. Moreover, "climate change" remains usefully vague on both the causes and direction of any possible change. For these reasons, a coalition of oil-producing companies, led by the US and Saudi Arabia, lobbied successfully in the early 1990s to change the official language at the United Nations from "global warming" to "climate change". This battle of Unspeak seemed to have been won, though the softening effect of "climate change", intended to head off alarm at government inaction against impending catastrophe, may not be working in the face of increasing public anxiety.
Other cryptically anti-science terms are in the ascendant in the US, such as the phrase "intelligent design", coined by creationist Christians in an attempt to smuggle theology into the biology classroom. Its strategy depends on pretending there is a "controversy" over basic tenets of evolutionary science, and twisting words such as "theory" in a virtuosically Unspeak fashion. Intelligent design of life on earth is a theory, say its proponents, though it offers no description of how such design happened, and pretends ignorance as to the identity of the actual designer, because if it were admitted that they thought it was God, it would be thrown out under the establishment clause of the US constitution. Meanwhile, they claim that evolutionary biology is "just a theory", appealing by contrast to the casual use of the word that is closer to "guess".
Unspeak does not stop with matters of domestic or scientific policy. It also has a magnetic attraction to projects of violence. Take the most brutal new phrase of our age, "ethnic cleansing". At first it looks like a revolting euphemism. But it is a revolting euphemism with a payload of other implications: that there is such a thing as pure ethnicity; that some such ethnicities are to count as filth or vermin; and that destroying them is a matter of hygiene - even a matter of moral virtue, as "cleansing" has spiritual connotations not contained in the more ordinary word "cleaning". For all these reasons, we should have refused to adopt the term "ethnic cleansing" when it first appeared in English, as a translation of a Croatian statement accusing the Serbs of intending mass killing and deportation in 1991. Mass killing and deportation already constituted genocide, under the terms of the UN Genocide Convention. Unfortunately, that convention also required signatory parties to intervene immediately, with force if necessary, to stop genocide. Because the world had no intention of doing this at the time, it eagerly adopted the phrase "ethnic cleansing" to describe what was happening in the Balkans, as though it somehow constituted a lesser crime: lamentable, of course, but not as serious. Thus the west's use of "ethnic cleansing" became code for "we're not going to do anything about it": it was rhetoric that deliberately turned a blind eye again in Rwanda, and again with Kofi Annan's assessment in 2004 that what was happening in Darfur was only "bordering on ethnic cleansing". To this day, "ethnic cleansing" does not officially exist as a legally recognised crime in the statute of the International Criminal Court, yet its use in public language persists. Another term that was once Unspeak, "concentration camp" (invented by the British in South Africa), has lost much of its euphemistic character, but "ethnic cleansing" remains merely a euphemism for genocide, and is eagerly used as such by those who wish to do nothing about it.
The Unspeak that other countries engineer in order to justify their own actions is no less dishonest. The Cheney/ Rumsfeld/Bush mantra of the "war on terror", for example, has attracted much appropriate ridicule (must we outlaw teenage slasher flicks? How can you wage war against a tactic?). Yet there is another aspect of its hidden cargo of persuasion, revealed if we compare it to the "war against international terrorism" declared by Ronald Reagan's secretary of state Alexander Haig in 1981. One might guess that "terrorism" was replaced by "terror" simply because the latter contained two syllables fewer for George W Bush to get his lips around. But the change also works to erase a distinction between "terror", formerly understood as practised by states against their own citizens (as in Robespierre's France), and "terrorism", normally defined self-protectingly by states as excluding their own actions, and limited to non-state groups. Once you start using "terror" to describe all such actions, it becomes much easier to construct a symbolic link between suicide bombers and countries in your missile sights. Thus, officials of the US government regularly called Saddam Hussein's Iraq a "terror state"; and al-Qaeda's weapon was "terror" as well as "terrorism". Clearly they were all in it together, and so going into Iraq was a relevant part of the "war on terror".
In general, indeed, the "war on terror" represents a crescendo of language twisted for propaganda purposes. Incontinent use of the word "terrorist" leads to disturbing semantic leakages, as in the ubiquitous but profoundly prejudicial phrase "terrorist suspect" (if you are merely a suspect, it is improper to call you a terrorist), or even Bush's recent defence of his illegal wire-tapping of US citizens: he christened it a "terrorist surveillance programme". Condoleezza Rice's insistence that the US does not torture makes sense only once you are aware that the US is operating with a definition of "torture", dreamt up by White House lawyers, that excludes everything but the most heinous acts of violence imaginable, in direct contradiction to the definitions contained in the UN Convention Against Torture and other international legal instruments. Presented with evidence that it does actually torture, for instance at Abu Ghraib, the administration retreats into the weaselly term "abuse", which has the useful effect of implying that any such acts are exceptions perpetrated by maverick individuals, rather than, as all the evidence attests, a matter of systematic policy. Horror is blunted by the use of deadeningly bureaucratic language, as when the beating to death of a taxi driver at Bagram Air Base was described as the "repetitive administration of legitimate force", which not only in effect prejudges any issue of the "legitimacy" of killing innocent men, but also conjures images of fluorescent-lit, grey-carpeted routine.
We may be dissuaded, however, from becoming too upset on behalf of torture victims if we accept the dehumanisation evident in the language used by US soldiers and officials to talk about them: dogs, sadists, killers and so on. Perhaps most revealing is the term for the US practice of exporting people for torture by other countries: extraordinary rendition. Suspects were said to have been "rendered", a verb that is also used in the language of industrial meat processing. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency: "Meat rendering plants process animal by-product materials for the production of tallow, grease, and high-protein meat and bonemeal." In these "animal rendering processes", the "raw material" of animals is converted into useful products. Similarly, suspects "rendered" to foreign torturers are anonymous pieces of meat to be converted into useful information by any means necessary. "People are fungible," Donald Rumsfeld once said of his own soldiers. Fungible means replaceable, or convertible into other currencies. The fungibility of a rendered person denies his individuality, denies his presumed innocence, in the service of a dark fantasy of transubstantiation in which the flesh is made word.
Political language in our time attempts an analogous kind of rendition: to turn the raw materials of dark arguments, ideas that cannot be admitted explicitly, into "useful" slogans for media consumption. The unspeakable is turned into Unspeak. But the good news is that, provided we pay attention, it cannot win. As Victor Klemperer, the chronicler of language abuse in Nazi Germany, pointed out: "Whatever it is that people are determined to hide . . . language reveals all. What a man says may be a pack of lies - but his true self is laid bare for all to see in the style of his utterances." Yet it is too common in our day merely to dismiss what politicians actually say as "soundbites" or "spin", to assume that it is meaningless waffle, and to close our ears. On the contrary, if Unspeak is interrogated rather than accepted uncritically and spread by compliant media, it cannot help but betray what its users really mean. Politicians are not just in the business of lying, or doublespeak, or "cloudy vagueness" and "pure wind", as George Orwell puts it in his essay "Politics and the English Language". From tax relief to extraordinary rendition, political Unspeak really means what it says, in a way that anyone can tune in to. All we have to do is listen.
Steven Poole's Unspeak is published by Little, Brown on 16 February (£9.99). www.unspeak.net