Tuesday, February 24, 2009


By David Chorlton

The use of language is a deceptive enterprise. Words don’t necessarily mean what they were meant to. Take the rental agreement issued by a prominent car rental company for example, in which the customer’s pink copy bears the details whose ink already appears faded in the moment they are printed. Toward the upper right-hand corner the letters spell out: DAY = CALENDAR DAY. My wife, having had to rent a car for a few days, asked what this implied. Jeremy, the enterprising assistant, mumbled something about the date and sounded deliberately non-committal. So the renting of the vehicle ensued, and when time came to return it my wife, who has lived her entire life with 24-hour days, had her sense of time challenged. According to Jeremy’s calendar, a day is a day even if it doesn’t begin until 5pm or if it ends at noon. Put plainly, counting the calendar day rather than the number of hours enables the enterprise to squeeze an extra day’s fee out of the customer to go with the additional insurance charges.

Jeremy, I am sure, is simply an obedient soldier in the army of commerce doing what he is trained to do. So let us check in with some of the published comments the enterprise in question makes about itself on its Web site, starting with “Personal honesty and integrity are the foundation of our success” and continuing through the stated intent “to exceed every customer’s expectations.” Shouldn’t “foundation” be plural? Never mind, at least we can guarantee that the customer’s expectations will be exceeded when twenty-four hours turns into two days. This observation simply points to a corporate manner of communicating in a promising but ultimately uninformative manner. Political language is taught in the same schools.

Vagueness in speech is never as useful as when employed in circumventing ethics in behaviour. At least the seven deadly sins were listed with specificity. In our time, we need to be sharp enough to interpret what is said to us and especially when it is said by politicians, the natural allies of enterprising corporations. Take “an honest mistake,” as it was brought up as a defense of the nominee for the position of Treasury Secretary when the news broke that he owed $34,000 in taxes and was still the choice to oversee the IRS. What exactly is an honest mistake and when does it become a tax break?

Slogans are designed to raise expectations without ever stating exactly what it is we can expect. You could be considering a career with our unnamed car rental company, the one that claims, “We built our company around being honest and fair, and at the same time, incredibly motivated and entrepreneurial. This is where your potential becomes reality.” All the qualities mentioned sound just fine, but in every one of them there is some of what we may call wiggle room, enough to accommodate a flexible interpretation. This is an even more cozy situation for those who invest in themselves by describing themselves glowingly. Public relations and advertising are excuses for corporations to lavish the kind of praise on themselves that we, as individuals, would find arrogant and objectionable should we speak of ourselves in the same way. Therein lies the difference between language as we use it to communicate and the neatly processed phrases with all the spontaneity ironed out of them in conferences before they are broadcast to the rest of us.

Imprecise language is, sadly, a staple in foreign policy. Consider the number of times “American interests” abroad are mentioned by spokespersons for the administration in their appearances on TV news shows to justify actions of a military nature. If the word “interests” were replaced by “military base” or “energy source” we would hopefully be more suspicious. Developing a sharper ear for manufactured speech should be then first line of defense against being personally manipulated and ultimately being party to the policy of killing for profit and power. Jeremy might think about applying for one of those jobs with the administration; he’d likely earn more than the car renters pay him.

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