Arguable: Seven not-so-dirty words

David Goldman/Associated Press/File

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Don’t say it

In 1972, comedian George Carlin first performed his famous monologue about the seven dirty words that couldn’t be said on television. In 2017, officials at the Centers for Disease Control have been given a list of seven words — not remotely dirty — that they must not use in the documents they’re preparing as part of next year’s budget proposals. The Washington Post first reported on Friday that the seven banned terms are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

The Post later updated its story to add that it isn’t only the CDC that is being instructed by the administration to avoid certain language:

A second HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] agency received similar guidance to avoid using “entitlement,” “diversity” and “vulnerable,” according to an official who took part in a briefing earlier in the week. Participants at that agency were also told to use “Obamacare” instead of ACA, or the Affordable Care Act, and to use “exchanges” instead of “marketplaces” to describe the venues where people can purchase health insurance.

At the State Department, meanwhile, certain documents now refer to sex education as “sexual risk avoidance.” . . . No explanations were given for the language changes.

News of the linguistic fetters, not surprisingly, drew immediate scorn.

Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said: “Among the words forbidden to be used in CDC budget documents are ‘evidence-based’ and ‘science-based.’ I suppose one must not think those things either. Here’s a word that’s still allowed: ridiculous.”


Agency insiders were just as scornful, according to an anonymous source quoted by the Post:

The longtime CDC analyst, whose job includes writing descriptions of the CDC’s work for the administration’s annual spending blueprint, could not recall a previous time when words were banned from budget documents because they were considered controversial.

The reaction of people in the meeting was “incredulous,” the analyst said. “It was very much, ‘Are you serious? Are you kidding?’ ”

“In my experience, we’ve never had any pushback from an ideological standpoint,” the analyst said.

Now, banning or restricting words isn’t always outrageous or unjustified. News organizations have detailed stylebooks that put all kinds of limits on the terms that can appear in published articles. But when politicians and government bureaucrats make certain euphemisms mandatory or prohibit widely-used phrases, alarm bells should always go off. So should mentions of George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which should be read, and periodically reread, by anyone who makes a living in politics, academia, or journalism.

In fairness, the Trump administration’s reported injunction against “fetus,” “science-based,” and the other expressions doesn’t seem to be a matter of censorship as much as a tactic to win congressional support for various spending line items.

“It’s stupid and Orwellian,” an unnamed former federal official told the New York Times. “But they are not saying to not use the words in reports or articles or scientific publications or anything else the CDC does,” the former official said. “They’re saying not to use it in your request for money because it will hurt you. It’s not about censoring what CDC can say to the American public. It’s about a budget strategy to get funded.” The idea, apparently, is that some words or phrases may irk GOP budgeteers in Congress, so agencies preparing funding requests should avoid those words and phrases.

The political corruption of language is at least as old as politics. In our system, both left and right have resorted to euphemisms and repackaged terminology in order to avoid speaking clearly about difficult issues. The Obama administration became notorious for its desperate circumlocutions when the subject was Islamist terrorism. What Washington and many Americans had readily referred to as the “global war on terror,” became, under Barack Obama, an “Overseas Contingency Operation.” Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ludicrously insisted on referring to terrorist attacks as “man-caused disasters.” Major Nidal Hassan’s massacre at Fort Hood in 2009 — he murdered 13 service members and wounded dozens more — was prissily described by the Obama Pentagon as an instance of “workplace violence.”


Before the Obama administration came along, George W. Bush’s CIA had engaged in capturing suspects and turning them over, without any form of due process, to foreign governments for ruthless grilling and sometimes torture. The abductions were euphemized as “extraordinary renditions.” Torture became “enhanced interrogation.”

Sometimes a politician, partisan, or pundit fails to speak clearly because he is incapable of thinking clearly. More often, the resort to euphemisms and the refusal to use more candid language is knowingly intended, as Orwell wrote, to keep people from “seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming.” All societies are afflicted with it. All governments do it. All citizens, therefore, ought to be on guard against it. Orwell was writing seven decades ago, but this observation will always be timely:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

George Carlin performs at the Orleans hotel casino in Las Vegas Saturday, June 7, 2008. Carlin, 71, whose staunch defense of free speech in his most famous routine "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television" led to a key Supreme Court ruling on obscenity, died Sunday June 22, 2008. He went into St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica on Sunday complaining of chest pain and died later that evening, said his publicist, Jeff Abraham. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Sun, Sam Morris) ** REVIEW JOURNAL OUT, MAGS OUT, TV OUT, NO SALES, ARCHIVE OUT. ** Library Tag 07022008 Sidekick
AP Photo/Las Vegas Sun/Sam Morris
George Carlin performed at the Orleans hotel casino in Las Vegas on June 7, 2008.


Prettified or misleading language, euphemistic slogans, poll-tested labels and formulations — the words and terms presidents and their spokesmen use to communicate with the public are part of the vast political propaganda operation that has become a formidable component of every administration.

In the introduction to Republic of Spin, his survey of presidential persuasion since the beginning of the 20th century, Rutgers professor David Greenberg undertakes a lively and interesting digression on the word “spin” and its antecedents.

In the beginning, they didn’t call it spin.

Though many of the practices we associate with spin are ancient, they used to go by different names. In Theodore Roosevelt’s day, to promulgate a message or image was called publicity. Originating as a synonym for exposure, publicity evolved into a term for self-promotion. As it did so, it took on a whiff of salesmanship, akin to that Roaring Twenties neologism ballyhoo. Public relations similarly began as an upstanding, well-groomed scion of the seedier press agentry, but was soon itself exposed as a slick euphemism. Propaganda, which started as a Catholic Church term, kept a neutral meaning for centuries, but after World War II it came, as the political scientist Harold Lasswell wrote, “to have an ominous clang in many minds.” After Hitler and Stalin, its use in the context of an open society struck most people as inapt. Scholars of propaganda like Lasswell now began to study communication.

Other coinages arose. The Cold War brought news management, an ungainly shard of bureaucratese designed to capture the postwar presidents’ regulation of information flow and superpower tensions. (On the international front, we got psychological warfare, which later became public diplomacy.) Television, with its flood of commercials, gave us selling, advertising, packaging, marketing, and image making. Today, with those terms tainted, a new crop of euphemisms has sprouted, each with its nuances: messaging, branding, framing, strategic communications . Political scientists Larry Jacobs and Robert Shapiro have proposed crafted talk — the “use [of] research on public opinion to pinpoint the most alluring words, symbols, and arguments in an attempt to move public opinion to support . . . desired policies”) — while the philosopher Harry Frankfurt serves up bullshit.

Yet spin remains the shorthand of choice . . . . Spin implies a deliberate attempt to stop short of lying, while still putting the best face on one’s position.

Greenberg argues that spin is not merely inevitable but necessary in politics. He argues against the temptation to dismiss it all as phony — what we should recoil from isn’t spin itself, he concludes, “but rather its use by the wrong leaders, at the wrong moment, for the wrong ends.”


That strikes me as a meaningless distinction. Every president, with the possible exception of George Washington, has been regarded in his own time, by innumerable American voters, as the wrong leader at the wrong time promoting the wrong ends. The president you revile is admired by others, and vice versa. To rationalize the use of spin when it is deployed by the “right” president is to rationalize its deployment always.

Better, I think, to resist it always, even from leaders you like. Ah, if only politicians could be compelled to stick to the truth. Then we wouldn’t need so many synonyms for getting around it.

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Off the bench

On his WGBH television program, “Greater Boston,” the very liberal host Jim Braude recently interviewed a very liberal guest — Margaret Marshall, formerly chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. On most political controversies, Braude and Marshall tend to come down on one side of the fence, while I, as conservative as they are liberal, tend to come down on the other.

But on at least one issue, I was happy to discover earlier this month, this righty and those lefties are as one.

Winding up a discussion about judicial politics, Braude asked Marshall whether she agreed with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who had (in an earlier interview) endorsed replacing the Constitution’s lifetime tenure for federal judges with a term of years — a long term, but not an indefinite one.

“Absolutely,” Marshall immediately replied.

“How about mandatory retirement?” Braude asked.

Again Marshall answered without hesitation: “Yes. Absolutely.”

She’s right. Judges should not be permitted to stay on the bench until they die of old age or have become antique relics, out of touch with the society their decisions so profoundly affect. Like other branches of government, Marshall said, the judiciary needs institutional renewal. When a justice is appointed to the Supreme Court, he or she may go on to sit for 40 or 50 years — a span never contemplated by the Framers of the Constitution, in whose time life expectancy for the average American was half of what it is today. In the nation’s early years, Marshall pointed out, “people lived to age 50; now we live to age 100.” That means men and women who become high court judges in their late 40s can reasonably expect to be wielding power for decades.

Even middle-aged adults can sometimes be clueless about the technology, the culture, or the experiences that shape the lives of teens and twentysomethings; many grow even more clueless as they move into their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Most of us would be dubious about the abilities of a very elderly president, anesthesiologist, or naval commander. Shouldn’t we be at least as dubious about leaving great judicial power in the hands of aged jurists?

In Federalist No. 79, Alexander Hamilton — defending the life tenure and guaranteed salary of federal judges — pooh-poohed the “the imaginary danger of a superannuated bench.” It’s not so imaginary anymore, not when more than 10% of the nation’s sitting federal judges are 80 years or older, and the three oldest Supreme Court justices are 79 (Breyer), 81 (Anthony Kennedy), and 84 (Ruth Bader Ginsburg). It has become normal for justices to cling to their position long past their prime. Some become physically debilitated: the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist refused to resign even after he was sick with the thyroid cancer that killed him. Others justices suffer mental declines. “Mental decrepitude among aging justices is a persistently recurring problem,” the historian David J. Garrow wrote in an eye-opening law review article in 2000. He cited example after example of justices who were still casting votes in vital cases long after their intellectual capacity had badly declined — or collapsed altogether.

Marshall is right: The judiciary needs to be regularly refreshed with new blood. Life tenure for federal judges were adopted to ensure independence from political pressures, but with the judiciary now so powerful and judges now sitting so much longer than they used to, lifetime appointments today ensure only the brutal intensity of confirmation fights when a rare vacancy appears.

A fixed term of years would solve the problem elegantly, I wrote early last year in a column sparked by the death of Antonin Scalia and the hideous political brawl that immediately erupted:

One appealing proposal would switch to a system of staggered 18-year terms, with a new justice being appointed in the first and third year of every presidential quadrennium. That would transform Supreme Court vacancies from rare flukes to regular events. Every president would have the opportunity to name at least two jurists to the highest court in the land. The political composition of the court would reflect the political orientation of the White House and the Senate more faithfully than it does now. When everyone knows that the next SCOTUS vacancy is never more than two years away, Supreme Court confirmations will no longer resemble Armageddon.

Making such a change would almost certainly require a Constitutional amendment, and even under the best of circumstances, that’s a long and difficult slog. Fix The Court, a nonpartisan grassroots organization that pushes for greater accountability and transparency on the Supreme Court, advocates an 18-year limit for Supreme Court terms as one of several “fixes” that would improve the high court. If opinion surveys are to be believed, most Americans agree — with majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents all favoring an end to life tenure for justices.

Here is one important reform for which there is bipartisan, pan-ideological support. All it needs is a leader to organize that support into action. What about it, Justice Marshall?


My Sunday column was about the addictiveness of social media. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are normalizing deeply unhealthy behavior, particularly our contemporary culture of relentless narcissism and a persistent hunger for flattery. All those tweets, posts, and likes trigger a neurochemical reaction in people’s brains — the release of the dopamine “pleasure” hormone, which keeps them hooked to their smartphones and to a social network that promotes the very opposite of sociability.

Last Wednesday I explained why the proposed “millionaire’s surtax,” a Massachusetts initiative to raise taxes by amending the state constitution, should be disqualified from next year’s ballot. There are clear limitations on what ballot initiatives may be used for, and this proposal flagrantly breaks the rules.

Wild Wild Web

I’m adding Lithuania’s surreal Hill of Crosses to my places-to-see bucket list.

Could a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building really kill someone?

With an assist from JibJab, George W. Bush sings “Deck the Halls.”

“We agreed to have no shooting until 12 midnight to-morrow” — one soldier’s eyewitness account of the spontaneous Christmas truce along the Western Front during World War I.

Rich Englishmen used to hire hermits — as a status symbol.

Count down the hours to the annual New Year’s Eve Idaho Potato Drop.

What not to do on New Year’s Day (some advice from A.D. 700)

The last line

“That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.” — Truman Capote, “A Christmas Memory” (1956)

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.