Let’s go slow. Obamacare was not a tax, but it is a tax. It can’t be called a tax because of this, but it can be called a tax because of that. Pushing fuzzy language to the hilt, Chief Justice John Roberts, in his affirmative ruling on Obamacare, appears to have reached a conclusion for which and after which he sought a justification. Eighteen-year-old college freshmen English students are taught to do better than that.
Because of this recent national flurry of verbal uncertainty, we need to resurrect a word which Thomas Jefferson introduced to the English language: twistification. We already had a word for the verbal shenanigans we’re now witnessing. That word is obfuscation, which simply means verbal confusion or “cloudiness.” Since obfuscation sounds pretentious and a bit prissy, however, I’m glad that we can call on Jefferson once again. Twistification is not prissy, and it does not obfuscate. It simply means that somebody is twisting something.
And, boy, are they ever. In the 1940s British writer George Orwell warned us that governments would twist things, but he was a sometime leftist and wasn’t always trusted. “Double-think,” (not “double-speak”, as we so often misquote him), was Orwell’s word, and like an ancient Hebrew prophet, Orwell cried out that Big Brother (governments) would eventually do us in if we were not vigilant, partly so because of Big Brother’s devious use of language.
Examples abound. For instance, why are Social Security deductions from our paychecks called “contributions” by the Social Security Administration? Do we voluntarily contribute them? Why does the IRS insist that our income tax reporting system is voluntary when we know that ominous things will happen to us if we don’t volunteer? Why, for a short period of time did the beloved Ronald Reagan keep referring to “revenue enhancement?” He meant taxes, of course.
Weasel words and other such slippery language aren’t confined to governments. Actually the field of education leads the way. Know what an “evaluative instrument” is? It’s a test. How about “pupil station”? That’s a desk. Some other jewels are the old, but still used “Language arts” which of course has always meant English and “Quantitative Literacy,” which means that math teachers, or at least math curriculum directors, want a fancy course title, too. Another one is “problem solving,” that oldie from John Dewey who argued that we should always define the problem, make a hypothesis, gather facts, and then verify or disprove. Schools have stuck to “problem solving” even though many scientists tell us they reach their conclusions in many different ways, not the least of which is simply sitting and thinking randomly about the problem.
If government and education are the chief culprits in verbal deviousness, the corporate world is a close third. In an effort to be sensitive and politically correct, many large companies’ employee manuals engage in all kinds of twistifications in order to say something without saying it. One such manual, desiring to promote friendliness around the office, urges employees to “relate and show awareness to all work colleagues.” I think this means be friendly and respect all co-workers. “Friendly” and “co-workers” are plain English, however, and we can’t have that. Instead we must yield to the psychobabble of the day and join the Cult of Feeling so that we can relate, empathize, be sensitive, and be aware. Such an emphasis, particularly in the corporate world, is proof enough that we have become one nation under therapy.
Getting closer to home, Georgians currently have an example of twistification in the TSPLOST ballot that will be voted on this summer. As most voters know by now, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a hard-working and talented public servant, has added words to the ballot that advocate for TSPLOST passage. Instead of just a simple question that asks whether or not voters favor the transportation tax, the ballot (now in litigation) plainly declares in its preamble language that a TSPLOST passage would create jobs. From his burial site at All Saints Churchyard in London, George Orwell whispers, “See?”
Don’t think for a moment that ordinary citizens aren’t affected by all of this. Twistification has a trickle-down effect. If people in government or education are the standard-setters for use of language and they employ weasel words or twist the language for their own ends, cynicism toward government will only increase.