Misleading Terminology


That is, calling something by a misleading name, or even calling it the opposite of what it is.

"If you control the language, you control the debate" (Katha Pollitt. "Wrong War, Wrong Word." The Nation, Sep. 11, 2006: 12).

Doublespeak defines and gives examples - e.g., "deregulation": reapportioning profiteering opportunities for corporate America by reducing or removing democratically controlled regulatory oversight.

Example: “The Freedom Act” was really to remove freedoms for the sake of security.

Example: “The Reagan administration.. invented the phrase “revenue enhancements” as a substitute for “taxes”” (Rampton & Stauber, 55).

Example: “Gambling casinos prefer to call themselves the “gaming industry”” (Rampton & Stauber, 55).

Example: “Corporations refer to failed business ventures as “nonperforming assets”” (Rampton & Stauber, 55).

Example: “The military refers to civilian deaths as “collateral damage,” bombs as “vertically deployed antipersonnel devices,” and killing the enemy as “servicing the target”” (Rampton & Stauber, 55).

For more on this subject, see the book by William Lutz, Doublespeak.


Here are some interesting quotes related to misleading terminology:

"One has to wonder also about our tendency to declare war against various blights--drugs, terrorism, poverty, cancer. Too often invocation of the word "war" is used to stifle discussion and to redefine dissidents as traitors. Drug abuse is indeed a scourge, but collective hysteria is one of its most malignant symptoms" (Kellman, Steven G. "Just Say No to Peeing In a Cup." The Texas Observer, 6/20/03, p. 23).


"When not-quite-President Bush promised to cut carbon dioxide emissions in his campaign speech and then did just the opposite... In fact, the "Clear Skies" Initiative is one in a series of euphemistically misnamed policies whose titles are the exact opposite of what they intend. Like Orwell's Ministry of Peace, Bush's Operation Iraqi "Freedom" is another example of a clever misnomer aimed at lying to America. Or how about the "Clean Water" Act? And my personal favorite, the "Jobs and Growth" tax cut" (Letter from Erika Boetsch. The Nation, October 6, 2003, 22).


"But isn’t the ALF [Animal Liberation Front] a violent organization? Doesn’t it in fact perpetuate terrorism? The terms “violence” and “terrorism” are almost never defined by ALF critics, and when they specify their meaning to any degree, the definitions are blatantly biased and self-serving, such that the real violence and true terrorism – acts committed and supported by the corporate-state complex— are ruled out of consideration by shabby semantic tricks...


"Like the term “communism” in the 1950s, “terrorism” is the most abused word in the English vocabulary today. In the era of the Patriot Act where all forms of dissent are denounced as terrorism, and terrorism is defined as an attempt to intimidate or influence government, the term is in danger of losing any meaning whatsoever...

"The corporate-state complex uses terms such as “violence” and “terrorist” as smokescreens, so that they can mask the real violence and terrorism directed from their [own] headquarters and legitimate their war against dissent. Once the state captures its target in the semantic crosshairs, they can pull the trigger of political repression" (Best, Steven. Email about ALF. 11-24-03).


"The recent Economic Report of the President suggests that jobs in the fast-food industry should be reclassified as manufacturing jobs. Its authors claim there's only a difference of degree between assembling a Big Mac at McDonald's and assembling an Explorer at Ford. Yeah, sure. And think what this little statistical fix would do to those embarrassing manufacturing-job-loss figures! It's the biggest Orwellian shell game since the Reaganites reclassified ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches" ("In Fact..." The Nation. March 15, 2004, 7).


""War on Terror" is a political slogan -- not a coherent strategy for national defense -- and it succeeds brilliantly only as politics. For everything else, it is quite illogical.

"...Why have most people submitted so willingly to a new political order organized around fear? Other nations have confronted terrorism of a more sustained nature without coming thoroughly unhinged..." (William Greider. "Under the Banner of the 'War' On Terror." The Nation, June 21, 2004: 11-18).


"The Bushites... label according to their self-interest -- occupation becomes freedom, global capitalism means equal opportunity, empire equates to democracy, and endless war leads to lasting peace" (Robert Bonazzi. "Responding to the Madness." Texas Observer, 8/13/04: 22-23).


"..what can it mean to say that failure is not an option [in Iraq]? Has the decision to go to war exhausted our powers of thought?... "Failure" is in truth never an "option." The exercise of an option is a voluntary act; but failure is forced upon you by events. It is what happens when your options run out. To rule out failure is not a policy but a wish -- and a wish, indeed, for omnipotence" ("How to Get Out of Iraq: A Forum." The Nation, May 24, 2004: 11).


"Since no one can rid the world of terrorists, a never-ending "war" on terrorism is a juvenile concept. Does anyone believe that a "war on drugs" or a "war on poverty" can be won? The vocabulary used to describe today's poor thinking is so absurd that no one should be surprised when tomorrow's adults (today's children) declare "war" on practically everything" ("Letters." The Nation, Sep. 13, 2004: 42).

"In military strategy "terrorism" is simply the use of the "indirect approach." The "direct approach" uses massive numbers of troops, planes, bombs, artillery and tanks. There is no way to defeat the indirect approach unless we depopulate the Muslim world... Greider writes of "fanatical terrorists" throughout the world. What is more fanatical than the "shock and awe" of dropping thousands of tons of depleted uranium on a civilian population?" ("Letters." The Nation, Sep. 13, 2004: 42).


"In New York, GOP groups with innocuous sounding names like the Americans for Prosperity Foundation met to promote readily digestible and easily explainable sound bites such as "ownership society" and "tax fairness." Disingenuous in their purposeful blandness, these concepts mask a well-defined plan to radically alter the obligations of our representative government toward its citizens. These phrases and many more have already been market-tested and disseminated to friendly media and grassroots activists. Well-financed efforts will ensure that they are repeated thousands of times before the election. A majority of the public that appears to have forsaken critical thinking and intellectual curiosity will never investigate the truth behind these benign slogans" ("Message Parity." Texas Observer, 9/10/04: 3).


"Immigrant workers... and black workers in the South -- long hampered from organizing by "right to work" laws [which make union organizing illegal]" (Liza Featherstone. "Will Labor Come Back?" The Nation, Sep. 20, 2004: 7-8).


"On October 29, 2002, George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Hidden behind its apple-pie-and-motherhood name lies a nasty civil rights time bomb.

"In the months leading up to the November 2000 presidential election, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, in coordination with Governor Jeb Bush, ordered local election supervisors to purge 57,700 voters from the registries... this electoral racial pogrom ordered by Jeb Bush's operatives gave the White House to his older brother.

"HAVA not only blesses such purges, it requires all fifty states to implement a similar sear-and-destroy mission against vulnerable voters" (Greg Palast. "Vanishing Votes." The Nation, May 17, 2004: 6).


"Excellent news, Americans! U.S. corporations say that they are no longer "off-shoring" our middle-class jobs. It seems that they have grown afraid of the rising public anger at this self-serving fattening of their already ample bottom lines. They fear that there will be a political backlash from workers, customers, Congress--and plain ol' American patriots. Does this mean that greedheaded CEOs are no longer shipping our manufacturing, professional, and high-tech jobs to India, Pakistan, Russia, and other low-wage centers? Of course not. It simply means they no longer say "off-shoring." Instead, corporate PR departments have coined new euphemisms--"remote global sourcing," or "right-shoring."

"A new report finds that off-shoring (by whatever name) is not only continuing unabated, but accelerating rapidly...

"Well, says one off-shoring specialist, so what: "It's free enterprise. We're trying to make money." So are bank robbers. The proper word for what these CEOs are doing is stealing. They're stealing America's middle-class future" (Jim Hightower. "Walking With Autocrats." Texas Observer, 10/22/04: 15).


Example: "Right to work" in Texas means you can't join a labor union and expect a decent wage and decent working conditions.

Example: "Whining" means you are complaining and I don't care.

Example: "War on terrorism" implies it can be won (like the war on drugs!) and that enough force and violence will fix the problem (in fact, violence usually begets more violence).


"The first requirement here is that we look at what we are doing--and...not use euphemisms. Despite the Red Cross's polite language, this is not "tantamount to torture." It's torture. It is not "detainee abuse." It's torture" (Molly Ivins. "Torture, American Style." Texas Observer, 12/17/04: 14).


A corollary to misleading terminology is bloated confidence...

"...ignore the substance and focus on the spectacle... CBS's Bob Schieffer... marveled, "One of the best-developed speeches that I have heard President Bush make. He was confident, he was direct, he drove his points home""(Eric Alterman. "Better Red Than Dead?" The Nation, Feb. 28, 2005: 11).

Note the verbiage implies that confident somehow substitutes for believable. In fact, it often does. Remember, however, that usually the less educated and less intelligent people are the most confident. They have no idea how much they don't know.


"...the unhappy fact is that almost everything this Administration tries to sell to Americans is snake oil, and the mere act of reporting it without comment implicates the media in the fundamental dishonesty that is this President's modus operandi. When he says "freedom," he means the freedom of the United States and its allies to jail and torture anyone they choose. When he says "liberty," he means the liberty of other governments to profess to share the alleged aims of US foreign policy and then--like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Egypt--jail and silence all critics without inconvenient criticism from the United States" (Eric Alterman. "Better Red Than Dead?" The Nation, Feb. 28, 2005: 11).


Democracy Redefined many examples of misleading terminology
Bush's terminology: "The War on Terror! – Keeping America Safe!"

Reality: "Terror tactics designed to create a frightened, trusting public willing to believe that we are hated because we are free."

Bush's terminology: "The Patriot Act"

Reality: "Violations of civil rights, due process, habeas corpus and other protections provided by the US Constitution in the guise of security measures. The upset of the vital balance of power in US government, placing unnecessarily greater power in hands of executive branch."

Bush's terminology: "Homeland Security"

Reality: "Selective contracts for the party faithful. Gaping loopholes in cargo, nuclear plant and aviation safety; Chemical industry protected from implementing costly security standards. Cities funded without regard to risk levels."

Bush's terminology: "Operation Iraqi Freedom!"

Reality: "Violations of International Law, Geneva Conventions. Control of Iraq oil reserves and pipelines; prisoner abuse and torture; Indiscriminant killingof civilians; chaos, confusion, continued death and destruction. Construction of largest US embassy in the world; construction of 14 permanent US military bases. Huge profits for Halliburton, Carlyle Group, other US contractors. Note: This product was sold to the public as Operation Protect America from a Threat of WMD yet the public never noticed that the label did not match the sales pitch."

Bush's terminology: "No Child Left Behind"

Reality: "Unrealistic and educationally unsound under-funded testing program; dissatisfied teachers, parents, administrators and students. Huge profits for manufacturers of practice and testing materials. Cuts in state and local funding for implementation of mandated program."

Bush's Terminology: "Clear Skies"

Reality: "More time for power plants, factories and refineries to reduce their air pollution. More pollution than allowed in present Clean Air Act. Increased caps on emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide."

Bush's terminology: "Healthy Forests"

Reality: "Severe limits on public participation; provisions for logging industry to cut down trees across 31,250 square miles of National Forests. No protection for homes nor for prevention of shrub land fires on private lands in southern California, the site of more than 90% of all fires in the state."

Bush's terminology: "Medicare Reform"

Reality: "Massive taxpayer handout to drug companies; ban on U.S. government to negotiate lower drug prices for senior citizens. Increases of 18%, to be followed by another 12% in contributions to Medicare coverage by seniors. Continued outrageous costs of prescription medications with only minor discounts."

(Source: "Democracy Defined." www.tvnewslies.org, 4-15-05).


"...the heart of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky... the Appalachians... serence, ancient beauty...

"In a cabal of ignorance and arrogance, giant coal corporations and their political henchmen literally are decapitating the Appalachian Mountains. It's called "mountaintop removal" (MTR)--a form of strip-mining that is so dastardly, so perverse, so destructive, so unbelievable, and so unnecessary as to leave anyone who sees it whopperjawed, if not temporarily insane with outrage. To see it is to witness a brutal rape.

"Instead of either tunneling down into mountains or boring in from the side, coal companies devised a nifty new process some 30 years ago that letes them get to the coal much more cheaply and requires only a handful of workers. In essence, they simply blow off the top third or so of the mountains, exposing layers of coal which they then scoop out.

"First, though, they scalp the mountains. They coldly clear-cut valuable oak and other hardwood trees, then brutally bulldoze them into huge piles... and burn them as trash. Next, using massive shovels, they scrape off the ancient forest floor down to bedrock, removing all plant life, organisms, and topsoil.

"After this come the fireworks. Mineworkers drill holes down into the rock and fill them with [explosives]. Next, excavating machines the size of 20-story buildings dig into the rock rubble and remove it, leveling the mountaintop and revealing coal.

"The ugliness isn't over yet. All those tons of boulders, sandstone, topsoil, and vegetation that were scraped, dug, and blasted are now categorized as "spoil" by the industry and must be "removed" from the now-decapitated mountain before the coal can be taken. Do the companies truck the spoil away? Good gracious, no! That would cost money. Instead, these corporations just shove their waste down into the valleys below, buying streams, animals, habitat, and anything (or anyone) in the way. The dumped rubble rises hundreds of feet high from the valley floors. Rather than calling these piles "dumps," however, the industry prefers to use an almost bucolic phrase: "valley fills"" (Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer, eds. "The Hightower Lowdown." Nov. 2005.).


"the EPA's newly proposed rule, misleadingly titled "Protections for Subjects in Human Research," puts industry profits ahead of children's welfare. The rule allows for government and industry scientists to treat children as human guinea pigs in chemical experiments in the following situations:

1. Children who "cannot be reasonably consulted," such as those that are mentally handicapped or orphaned newborns may be tested on. With permission from the institution or guardian in charge of the individual, the child may be exposed to chemicals for the sake of research.

2. Parental consent forms are not necessary for testing on children who have been neglected or abused.

3. Chemical studies on any children outside of the U.S. are acceptable. " (email from Organic Consumers' Association, 11-18-05).


"Without question, if we all used the same vocabulary, the neoconservative movement would collapse. That's why the government has to pay columnists, favricate its own news and invent its own language to win the war of public opinion...

"... Bush-speak... touts a culture of lise, this while promoting permanent worldwide war...

"And so rather than rebuking the illegal war culprits, the neocons simply change the meaning of words and reward each other with new appointments...

"Nowadays, military death squad killings in Afghanistan and Iraq have become "targeted assassinations." And the president is completely against torture, as long as he defines its meaning, this while ensuring that US troops act with impunity and are exempt from the International War Crime tribunal.

"At home, politics trumps science and delusion is now the national pastime. There is no global warming. Propaganda promotes freedom. Corruption occurs abroad and pollution-friendly rules are now "clear-air" initiatives. Universal health care is satanic, and bankruptcy is now only an option for big business. And his deficit-inducing tax cuts that favor the rich are propelling the economy...

"...the deceptive use of language by the US government... we are supposed to perceive ourselves not as "savages," but as under siege from savages" (Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez. "The culture of life." Progressive Populist, May 1, 2005: 18).


"While the bill was titled the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act, it should really be known as the Big Wet Kiss for Lobbyists Act" (Gary Ruskin. "No Housecleaning." The Progressive, May, 2006: 22-24).


"He says it is the foolish and awful and thoughtless use of language that allows us to not think. And unless we pay attention to the meaning of words, we are subject to dealers in quack religion and political chicane" (Ruth Conniff. "Lewis Lapham." The Progressive, May, 2006: 31-34).


Colby Glass, MLIS