Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Tell It like It Isn't: "Bland" Language Can Hide Much Meaning, Argue Paul Evans and Milly Getachew

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Tell It like It Isn't: "Bland" Language Can Hide Much Meaning, Argue Paul Evans and Milly Getachew

Article excerpt

Last month, the Iranian military adviser General Yahya Rahim Safavi commented that the demise of the Syrian Hezbollah commander Imad Mughnieh had hastened "the certain death of the Zionist regime". Mahmoud Ahmadinejad then chipped in, denouncing Israel as both a "savage animal" and a "dirty microbe", language that provoked a predictably angry response. What end does such bombastic rhetoric serve?

The intended audience matters. Iran does not have bilateral relations with Israel, and is indifferent to its response. Rather, it seeks to position itself as a leader of the Muslim world, and perpetuate the idea of Israel as an ideological cancer in the Middle East.

Western diplomacy, however, has historically rested upon a coded form of communication in which words are imbued with a significance detached from their ordinary usage. Alienating the citizens that it purports to speak for, this language is, in its own way, as dishonest and insidious as that of Ahmadinejad. Yet it has utility: the apparently bland white noise of diplomacy sets a landscape in which the gravity of deviations, intended or otherwise, becomes clear to all those involved.

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Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British envoy to the United States, has decades of experience in decoding euphemisms. "If talks are described as 'frank', that means a blazing row; if 'candid', a smaller row," he says. "If you are 'disappointed', you're pissed off as hell. At the UN, 'all necessary means' indicates war. …

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