April 21, 2012

How the war on language helps the war on the poor

Sam Smith

The war on language conducted by politicians, bureaucrats and media in our capital has a direct and negative effect on what they claim to be talking about. For example, as noted here before, if someone speaks of infrastructure you significantly reduce the number of people who understand what is being described. Normal people call them bridges, roads and public works. Thus, if you're trying to build a constituency for more spending on such matters, calling it infrastructure doesn't help at all.

The same can be said of the widespread use of TANF, SNAP and similar acronyms. Most important bills coming out of Congress these days have such an acronym and the result is that most outside the system don't know what the hell is being discussed. When the actual topics are welfare and food stamps, this is more than a minor offense.

For example, Bill Clinton, who launched the reversal of decades of American progress that helped lead to the present GOP pathology, got legislation that included Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Hence TANF.

At least it was a better name than the underlying bill, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, aimed at ending "welfare as we know it." The cynical and dishonest implication was that it was laziness and not the economy that sent people into poverty. The idea, according to one description, was to change welfare reform, "once considered an open-ended [sic] right," into "a finite program built to provide short-term cash assistance and steer people quickly into jobs."

Thus TANF is really a welfare cutting measure, but you'd never know from the initials.

Similarly, when someone talks about SNAP, it is likely that only a minority of people know that the topic is food stamps. Keeps it all nicely in the club. Even its awkward real name, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, at least gives a better clue, albeit in 9 syllables.

For journalists, the tendency is just to go with the flow or JGWTF. Even the Review does so much of the time although we have learned to use the phrase, "anti-internet legislation" whenever we can instead of the numerous acronyms applied to such bills.

And we routinely exorcise initials following the name of an organization or piece of legislation. This is an ugly habit picked up from that least literate of professions - lawyers - and should be avoided at all costs.

For more on this topic, see: SomeRulesForWriting LLC (SRFW)! 

Still, it feels like a losing battle. Much as I would like to snap the tanf of any official who abandons, as one my high school teachers put it, "speaking United States," I realize that there will soon come a time when no one in Washington will know what food stamps or welfare are. And we will become the first empire to collapse under the weight of its acronyms. 


Uncle Goat said...

Roughly 30 years we entered a SNAFU
and have slowly and surely moved toward FUBAR. Not all government inspired acronyms mislead, but it is true you have to know them.

Anonymous said...

The point of "Newspeak" (1984) is to reduce the range of permissible thought.

Cell phone text speak is part of this problem, too. It is dumbing down the public.

We live in the world of Chance the Gardener.

Anonymous said...

Patriotic language cloaks much commerce from the military-industrial complex to mattress retailers on Washington's birthday. Washington in his Farewell Address, hoped that "in vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert" the nation. Jefferson specifically identified as national enemies the "lending institutions and moneyed corporations" giving the basis for anti-Federalist partisanship and eventually Jackson's Democrats. Organizations opposed to democracy invariably use patriotic names, such as Citizens United, American Tradition Partnership, etc. But with enough street cred they can enter the political arena, like an entitled posse of gunmen through the swinging doors of a Western saloon. In Nixon's day, his reelection team was frankly named CREEP, although his elite unit was still disguised as plumbers.