Weekend thoughts on using effective language

As many of you know, I’m a huge language fan — I love and think in metaphors — and a big fan as well of using political language effectively. This is something the Right excels at and we do fairly badly. But good language is not the minion of either side (see? a metaphor). There’s hope; we too can be good at using it.

I’ll give a couple of left-language examples (one is mine), then pass you to this video of Anat Shenker-Osorio, author of the well received book on effective language and framing, Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy. The reviews are excellent — I’ve seen it called the book that Lakoff’s might have been, but wasn’t. Especially praised is her limited use of jargon — though academically trained, she simply talks to people about talking to people. (Good plan, in my opinion.)

First framing example, courtesy of Spocko at Spocko’s Brain via email:

When it came time for [to discuss] the Trayvon Martion shooting, the Violence policy people … instantly got on the issue of NEVER calling it, “Stand Your Ground” which has a positive connotation. We called it, “Kill at Will” … (we also had other names like “Shoot First“). This is important, because the the NRA got to the press first with “Stand Your Ground” and the press kept using it.

I’ve been using phrases like “Stand your Ground and Fire” myself — or “Stand and Deliver” — but Spocko has the good ones. Note however that the NRA got there first with the framing and the media followed obediently behind.

The second example is mine. The standard Left phrasing for the Keystone Pipeline is “Keystone Tar Sands Pipeline” — not bad. But it doesn’t capture the idea that the tar is in the pipeline itself, and not just in the sand. In fact, that’s one of the defining, and most dangerous, features of the pipeline. As I understand it, the pipe must be heated the whole way to get the sludge to flow. The tar is also in the pipe, as tar. The picture I have is one of those hot asphalt carts that the street repair people use.

So my framing — which I’ve successfully gotten no one to adopt — is “Keystone Sludge Pipe“. First, it correctly images what’s going on inside that thing as it passes through your neighborhood (or bursts out into your water). And second … well, “sludge pipe” has evocative overtones that really do tell the tale.

Now the interview. This is the author talking on a news-and-views program at the local San Francisco NBC station. Watch:

Metaphors matter. As she says at 4:40, for example, losing your home is not like losing your keys. “People don’t ‘lose’ homes. Other people take them.” Nice. When you disappear the perp, you neuter the response. Protecting perps (“doers” is the technical term) is part of why people use passive voice and similar “act of god” phrasing in the first place.

For more on this, there’s a nice FDL Book Salon with Anat. I do recommend it. Spocko wrote a good introduction to the main concept of the book — good metaphors and bad ones for the economy — and Anat hung out in the comments for a lengthy chat. (Hint for reading Book Salon comments if you don’t have much time — do a search on something unique about the author’s name, like “Shenker”, then walk down the author’s responses with the search-again key. If you see a response you want the question for, one click takes you there.)

I’ll have more of these language discussions from time to time. It’s a fun and important topic.

Housekeeping note: I’m preparing for more than a month of overseas travel, so posting will be very light until Wednesday, October 24 or so. At that point I’ll be settled and working again. If you email or tweet links and I don’t respond, this is why. To all of you who do send links, thanks.

(UPDATE: Fixed video.)


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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