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Politicalspeak: U.S. Style

By Robert Fantina - Posted on 17 May 2013

                It has been some time since the language of U.S. politics has been twisted so far as to render words nearly meaningless. In an effort to clarify what is actually being said in Washington, D.C., this writer offers this glossary of terms, with historical context, current usage and, at times, synonyms and antonyms.

                Some of these words and terms have been around for a while; others are brand new.

  • War on Terror: Since at least 2001, the U.S. has been fighting a ‘war on terror’.  What that series of words strung together really means is anyone’s guess, but in U.S. politicalspeak, it means bombing any country the U.S. feels like bombing, for any reason at all, and describing the bombing as another effort in the ‘war on terror’. There is no known synonym or antonym, since no one knows what the term ‘war on terror’ means.
  • Unmanned aircraft: This is a new one, readers, so please get ready for it. Currently known as drones, these deadly weapons of war are stirring up some very limited controversy, as they fly over various countries, dropping bombs on civilians. Why, one might ask, is this being done? Please see ‘war on terror’, above.  

But since that small but, hopefully, simmering controversy exists, why not deflect it? Isn’t ‘unmanned aircraft’ an innocuous sounding term? Not at all like that ugly old ‘drone’ word. Synonyms: death machine; instrument of terror.

  • Free enterprise: During the most recent presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney was pilloried for his cruel and heartless practices when running Bain Capital. During the campaign, the word ‘capitalism’ came to represent the worst of corporate America, at least to the limited degree that the U.S. press is ever willing to expose it. So some members of the GOP suggested a rebranding: not ‘captalism’, but ‘free enterprise.’ “A rose by any other name….” Synonym for ‘free enterprise’ as understood today: exploitation of the poor and working class.
  • Christian: Originally, this word denoted someone who attempted to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, revered by some as the savior and redeemer of the world. Even a cursory study of his life demonstrates that he was loving, kind and patient, and only showed anger when dealing with hypocrites and the money changers in the temple. Today, however, that meaning is lost. Today, in U.S. politicalspeak, to be ‘Christian’ means being intolerant, hateful, condemning of the poor, and exclusionary. While none of those characteristics was ever demonstrated by Jesus Christ, who, in fact, condemned them all, that is what being ‘Christian’ has come to mean in U.S. political dialogue. Antonym for today’s meaning of Christian: Christian (original meaning).
  • Scandal: Originally meaning a disgraceful action or circumstance, this word now means anything one party does that the other party doesn’t like. Now, one might say that sending drones (oh, excuse me, I meant to say ‘unmanned aircraft’) to drop bombs on innocent and unsuspecting residents of Third World countries might be a disgraceful action, and, therefore, a scandal, but not in today’s lingo. But, the IRS investigation of Tea Party groups: now, there is a scandal for today’s society. Synonym: Desperate move to hold Congressional seat.
  • Fiscal Responsibility: In political and governmental terms, this once meant balancing the federal budget, and keeping expenditures roughly in line with income. This concept may be familiar to many readers, since this is what the average person attempts to do with his/her own budget. Now, however, a whole new meaning of the term has been created and is widely accepted. It means assuring that the wealthy are not taxed, and that previous Republican presidents who never balanced a budget in their lives are seen as fiscal saviors, needed now more than ever before.

The Iraqi War brought us two new definitions.

  • Insurgent: The dictionary definition of this word is ‘a person who rises in forcible opposition to lawful authority.’ This is an excellent example of the ‘black is white and white is black’ concept of U.S. politicalspeak.  In Iraq, people who were opposing the unlawful occupation of their country were called ‘insurgents’. The better word, taken from an old and bygone time, is ‘freedom fighters’.
  • Augmentation: Isn’t that a pleasant word? It certainly doesn’t conjure up any memories of the Vietnam War, as the word ‘escalation’ might. So when then President George Bush sent tens of thousands of additional soldiers to Iraq, his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured a skeptical (for once!) Congress that it wasn’t an escalation; it was merely an ‘augmentation. Surely you see the difference.

And last but not least:

  • Freedom: The basic concept behind this word is quickly being lost in U.S. politicalspeak. Originally, it meant the ability for individuals to make and carry out a wide variety of decisions, within some societally-accepted norms. Today, the word means removing that ability, in the name of freedom. For example, as Congress attempts to limit citizens’ health care choices, it does so in the name of freedom.

It is not unusual for word usage to change and evolve over time. Most languages experience this phenomenon, but it generally takes generations.  Not so for the U.S. political world: one war, one election, one term in office is far more than enough time for it to happen.

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