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The Art of Saying What You Don't Quite Mean : Language: The Quarterly Review of Doublespeak spotlights the worst examples of euphemism and bureaucratese that cloud the truth.

December 10, 1989|MIKE BOWLER | BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

BALTIMORE — William Lutz is up to his ankles in the stuff.

Lutz edits the Quarterly Review of Doublespeak from his home near Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where he teaches English.

As contributors send him material for possible publication, Lutz files it by category in piles on the floor of his study.

"It's up to your ankles," his wife, Denise, exclaimed the other day.

And Lutz says "things are getting worse all the time. Doublespeak is all around us."

\o7 Doublespeak \f7 is the term used for the euphemisms, obfuscations, gobbledygook and bureaucratese in language that shift or avoid responsibility, that make the negative appear positive (and, where convenient, vice versa), that make the positive appear even more positive, that make the uncomfortable comfortable, that conceal or even prevent critical thought.

Lutz has compiled examples galore in a new book, "Doublespeak," published by Harper & Row:

Acid rain is "poorly buffered precipitation," according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dumps are called by that same agency "resource recovery parks." (Anything with \o7 park \f7 in it is a doublespeak candidate, Lutz says.)

People aren't fired, they're "excessed."

New taxes are termed "revenue enhancement," although Lutz says that the Reagan Administration stopped using that unfortunate phrase after it became a laughingstock.

Not all doublespeak is humorous, however.

Probably the ultimate in doublespeak was the Nazis' "final solution."

But we also have the "Peacemaker" missile, the 1984 "rescue mission" of Grenada (which became, in the words of the Pentagon, a "predawn vertical insertion") and "friendly casualties" of war, which are caused by "accidental delivery of ordnance equipment."

When the United States (or any nation) is involved in an international incident that might hold it up to worldwide condemnation or ridicule, Lutz says, "you can count on a flood of doublespeak" from its government.

Thus, when the U.S. cruiser Vincennes shot down an Iranian commercial airliner 16 months ago, killing 290 people, the Navy produced a report concluding that although crew members of the ship had committed numerous errors, no American military personnel were responsible for downing the airliner. Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci and other U.S. officials blamed the Iranians for forcing the Vincennes to shoot the plane down.

Lutz was in Baltimore recently to give out the annual doublespeak awards of the National Council of Teachers of English (which publishes the quarterly).

First place in the 1989 "competition" went to the Exxon Corp. for calling 35 miles of Alaska beaches "environmentally stabilized" after the oil company's cleanup efforts.

Second "prize" went to the Bush campaign for publicly disapproving the famous "Willie Horton" commercial while at the same time doing nothing to stop it.

A third award went to James Watt, former secretary of the Interior, who defended a $300,000 "consulting fee" for his skimpy efforts--a few phone calls and one brief meeting--to persuade HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce to dole out HUD contracts to well-connected Republicans.

"If I were a Democrat, I'd say Jim Watt engaged in influence peddling," Watt explained. But as a Republican, "I would say, 'There's a skilled, talented man who used his credibility for accomplishing an objective.' "

Some members of the English teachers' organization are said to feel discomfited by the preponderance of doublespeak awards to the Reagan and Bush Administrations.

But if the "great enemy of clear language is insincerity," as George Orwell suggested in his classic 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," Washington in the 1980s has stacked up enemies like cordwood.

Besides, the Carter Administration has received its share of awards. Remember the neutron bomb? Carter's Pentagon dubbed it an "enhanced radiation device," thus winning the teachers' top award in 1977.

Maybe the teachers who complain should look in the mirror.

Educators out-doublespeak politicians.

Teachers are "learning facilitators." They don't test students; they "implement an evaluation program." Students don't study; they spend "time on task." Educators seem to like doublespeak.

But, Lutz suggests, they ought to be leading the fight against it, teaching students how to spot it, how to defend themselves against it and how to eliminate it in their own writing and speaking.

Too many aren't up to the battle, and that is one reason Lutz is up to his ankles.

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