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The English Speaker's Guide to Political Journalese

How to decipher the noise of political clichés.

By Crawford Kilian 27 Apr 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Explain again how a political football can be used for a slam dunk? Image: Shutterstock

As we approach May 14, many British Columbians can be excused for ignoring an election campaign waged in a language they don't know. Print journalism covers politics in Journalese, as remote from ordinary English as classical Chinese is from the language spoken on Pender Street.

Even Google Translate is no help, so as a public service The Tyee offers a cheat sheet on Journalese. You may not like what the papers are saying, but at least you'll know what they mean. Sort of.

Basic Journalese

In Basic Journalese, politicians do not welcome a new event; they hail it. If they don't like something, they lash out against it -- and if it's really bad, they blast or lambaste it.

A political promise is not a promise; it's a vow or pledge. If anyone casts doubts on the promise, it's a clash, and automatically controversial. Whoever disagrees with the promise is a foe, and if enough foes enter the fray, the controversy can be said to be raging. One more disagreement takes us to firestorm level.

The firestorm can often begin when a politician weighs in to give the green light to a law that others find toothless. As the firestorm escalates, tempers flare and a probe may be called for in which players will be quizzed. In the wake of such a probe, a deal may be hammered out that will ensure lawbreakers are not only busted but also slapped with harsh penalties.

A nameless but numerous group called critics may underscore this outcome as a mere tax grab or power grab. Paying for it, the critics say, will require a spending spree that will predictably leave government cash-strapped. Defenders will insist they are growing the economy.

When challenged about such arguments, politicians will insist that they, and especially their leader, have been very clear, a judgment not theirs to make. They will then recite a catechism called talking points; the expression "again" often begins every answer, meaning the same lie is about to be repeated. This is called message control.

Advanced Journalese

Linguists recognize that advanced Journalese would scarcely exist without sports metaphors. Journalese recognizes the value of ballpark figures, not to mention figures of speech. Even a politician's conversation with more than two journalists is a scrum, as if they were all 250-pound rugby players.

In advanced Journalese, no problem is simply dealt with; it is always tackled, also known as playing hardball. Failing a good tackle, the only solutions are to punt, kick the can down the road, or move the goalposts. Moving them far enough could be a game changer -- so much so that a political football could be used for a slam-dunk.

Reporters never appear in advanced Journalese; observers take their place. Observers strive for balance, usually defined as he said/she said. Voters must decide for themselves who is lying.

Politicians have their own dialect, rich in terms that sound like English but are far removed from standard usage. Most vulnerable, for example, translates as worst funded by the present government. One party's investment plan is the other party's spending spree. Depending on the party and the audience, inequality is either a wrong to be righted or the whole point of the economy.

The same is true of budget cuts, which some politicians may translate as the axe or the chopping block, while others see them as flexibility or downsizing. Similarly, job creators tend to be major donors to one party. Donors to the opposition are fatcats and corporate/union bosses.

Clichés: Just the tip of the iceberg

Politicians are generally fluent in Journalese, and know how to use it to pad a small and fragile bit of meaning. "I will be completely exonerated when the true facts are revealed after a full and complete investigation," they say, knowing their interviewers must often file a 500-word story with only 100 words of news. A crisis situation fills out a sentence better than a mere crisis does; with luck, its resolution will be fair and equitable.

Journalese thrives on clichés and does due diligence to embalm them in print. Going forward, it expects a perfect storm which we voters can escape only if we hit the ground running, tighten our belts, bite the bullet, circle the wagons, and think outside the box. The other party will only compare apples with oranges, reinvent the wheel, and throw money at the problem. Clearly such Band-Aid solutions won't work; we want a win-win situation and plenty of empowerment. Only an iconic leader can deliver.

In some ways, we have only ourselves and our short attention spans to blame for Journalese. Democracy is like a profitable family business inherited by spoiled kids with no interest in the tedium of running it. If they see no excitement or drama in the business's problems and their solutions, the kids will just tune out and start planning their next holiday.

Journalese is an attempt to stir up excitement, but it's like your tax accountant explaining your options while shaking pompoms and wearing a short skirt. If you prefer that kind of entertainment to reading the small print, you probably deserve the skinning the next government will inflict on you -- no matter who's running that government.  [Tyee]

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