What’s in a name?

The late George Carlin was a brilliant comedian and social critic, especially in his obsession with how language can be used to distort or deceive. He’s also a lot funnier than Derrida or Bourdieu.   In one of his best routines, Carlin began by noting: You can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth. I ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The late George Carlin was a brilliant comedian and social critic, especially in his obsession with how language can be used to distort or deceive. He's also a lot funnier than Derrida or Bourdieu.  

In one of his best routines, Carlin began by noting:

You can't be afraid of words that speak the truth. I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American english is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation. "

The late George Carlin was a brilliant comedian and social critic, especially in his obsession with how language can be used to distort or deceive. He’s also a lot funnier than Derrida or Bourdieu.  

In one of his best routines, Carlin began by noting:

You can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth. I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American english is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation. "

He then proceeds to trace how the same combat-induced condition once known as "shell shock" (two syllables, clear and evocative), gradually evolved into "battle fatigue" (four syllables), then "operational exhaustion" (eight syllables) and then into today’s "post-traumatic stress disorder." (eight syllables plus a hyphen!). And in the process, its nature is concealed and its impact is quietly diluted.

The spirit of Carlin is probably smiling ruefully right now, because this tendency appears to be alive and well. According to the Associated Press, the Army has now dropped the term "psychological operations" (nine syllables, unless you use the two-syllable label "psy-ops").

The new term is — are you ready? — "military information support operations" (a whopping fourteen syllables).  Both the old term and the new one are euphemisms, but the latter is precisely the sort of bland and neutral phrase intended to conceal what is really going on.  

You know, just like saying "enhanced interrogation" (seven highly misleading syllables), instead of "torture" (just two syllables; clear, on point, and illegal).

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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