THE MAGAZINE

When Words Carry Multiple Meanings

By Sherry Harowitz

In the book Skating on Stilts, former Department of Homeland Security official Stewart Baker tells of a conversation he had with a European Union representative. The EU negotiator wanted the United States to agree to extend a data-sharing agreement without any changes. “‘Completely understood,’ I said,’” he writes. A casual listener might think that Baker had just concurred with the EU position. But he explains to the reader what he really meant: That’s “what you say in international negotiations when the other side says something you have no intention of agreeing to.”
 
You have to love language. What makes it such an agile tool—or treacherous weapon—is that any word can be bent to a masterful interlocutor’s will.
 
Sometimes the way words are mangled is mildly amusing as when I heard a newscaster say that Edy’s and Breyers had shrunk the size of their half gallon ice cream. You can’t shrink a measurement. A half gallon is 64 ounces. Anything less is no longer a half gallon.
 
But when words are intended to mislead the public about substantive policy issues, that’s not amusing. That was the case a few years back when the U.S. Department of Agriculture put out a proposal to define “organic” as constituting some of the nonorganic processes most objected to by organic food proponents. Producers wanted the benefits an organic label would provide without having to do the work of making their food organic. Solution: Change the definition.
 
Verbal sleight of hand is popular in politics as well, of course. Ben Schott, who writes on words for the New York Times, noted in a recent Wisconsin Public Radio podcast how some politicians take it further than just wanting to use euphemisms or pejoratives, depending on whether they are trying to enlist support or create opposition; in the more extreme cases, they use coded language to hide their true position. In Australia, he says, the practice is called “dog whistle politics.” It refers to the use of certain expressions to state a position in a way that sounds reasonable to the average person; only supporters who know the code hear the undertones that carry the real meaning of the phrases uttered.
 
That approach is even more of a concern when it comes to issues such as homeland security. The right choice of words in some circles gives the speaker plausible deniability if he is called out for radical views or if supporters commit violent acts. A classic example of that may be Tariq Ramadan, a controversial figure who presents himself as a moderate Islamic scholar who could help the West but whom critics say is really a proponent of radical Islam. French journalist Caroline Fourest wrote a whole book about what she called “the doublespeak” of Ramadan.
 
Word play can be fun, but it can also be a deadly serious game in which the cost of missing the real meaning can be high.

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