Did You Really Mean To Say This?

September 13 2023

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.

So wrote Orwell in 1946.

Today has given us 2 examples of how language is used to obscure the indefensible. But not from the political world. For a change.

Example No 1

The  announcement by BP that its CEO, Bernard Looney, left because, when providing answers in an earlier investigation about his relationships with colleagues, “he now accepts that he was not fully transparent in his previous disclosures. He did not provide details of all relationships and accepts he was obligated to make more complete disclosure.

Not fully transparent”. In old money: “He lied”
“Obligated to make more complete disclosure.” = “He should have told us the whole story”

These carefully crafted phrases are now the latest in a sequence of phrases which all mean the same – in substance – but which increasingly try to avoid actually saying it.

  • It started with “lie”.
  • It then proceeded to “economical with the truth” (used in 1986 by the then Cabinet Secretary to Mrs Thatcher, Sir Robert Armstrong, in the British government’s doomed attempt to stop Spycatcher – Peter Wright’s colourable account of MI5’s activities – being published). This was greeted with well-deserved derision but at least had the merit of using the word “truth”.
  • Economical with the actualité” was then used by Alan Clark in the Matrix Churchill arms to Iraq trial in 1992. Quite why a Tory politician famous for telling his civil servants in Defence – presumably as a joke – that British missiles should be aimed at the real enemy, France (or so he records in his diaries) should dress up this phrase in French is not made clear. Unlike Mr Looney, though, Alan Clark was all too transparent, indecently so, about all his liaisons.
  • Clarification”: a simple word meaning, in reality, an admission that what was said before was completely untrue. Or that what is being said now is exactly the same as what you said before even though it is the complete opposite. Often used to “clarify” a “full and frank disclosure” which has turned out to be anything but.
  • Now we have not being “fully transparent”.

Example No 2

This letter from a recently retired consultant anaesthetist, Dr Peter Hilton was published in today’s Times, in response to this article yesterday about sexual harassment and rape within the surgical profession.

Sir, This “snowflake generation” of young doctors, largely female and selected on mainly academic excellence, clearly did not do their homework. Medical training and practice is brutal and demanding, with long hours, and bullying happens. Sexually inappropriate comments and actions do occur. It is stressful. All I can say is that if they want to make a success of this rewarding career then they should toughen up. Perhaps four A*s at A-level are not the answer to all the problems they will face.

There are – quite apart from the implication that stress explains sexual assault and bullying – a number of problems with the language used in this letter.

  • The female doctors “did not do their homework”. Quite what they were supposed to do is not explained. Imagine that last question from the interview panel: “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?” “Well, yes, there is, actually. How stressful is this job? I’d like to know how much sexual assault and sexually inappropriate comments I should expect?
  • The use of the word “inappropriate”. It is a word best used for minor social solecisms or impoliteness. Using it to describe behaviour amounting to crimes is a way of obscuring the truth, of diminishing the seriousness of what is happening, above all, of showing contempt for those to whom it is done.
  • The convenient use of the passive voice. “Bullying happens”. “Sexually inappropriate comments and actions do occur”. It just “happens” does it? A sort of ethereal bullying with no actors responsible for it, then. Bullying – like those “sexually inappropriate actions” – does not just occur or happen. It is done by people – often men or people in a position of power – to other people – often women or people lower down the hierarchy or younger or not in a position to resist. It is a choice by those doing it. It is – does this really need saying in 2023? – wrong.
  • Finally, the exhortation that “they should toughen up”. Ah yes, sexual assault as a character-building experience.

When language like this is chosen, it is designed to obscure some – usually pretty unpleasant – reality. But it is unintentionally revealing of the author.

What conclusions to draw?

Mr Looney will now be reflecting that, as so frequently happens, it is the cover up – not the misbehaviour – that gets you. He will realise that when asked questions in an investigation, it pays to be truthful in your replies.

The public are left no clearer as to what actually went wrong at BP. But that’s OK because BP has moved on, its announcement having been carefully finessed by lawyers and communications professionals.

The doctor’s letter will likely not have been, despite him being a published author (“It’s Been a Gas? The life of an Anaesthetist” – available online, 1-star rating, which seems all too appropriate for something written by an expert in rendering you unconscious).

Some free advice.

  • There are letters/emails you write, usually when irritated, angry, upset or just tired, especially late at night or when you’ve been very busy, which may perfectly express how you feel. Then.
  • But once written, you read (or get someone else to read) them and, having got all this off your chest, you go to bed. The following day you press the delete button.
  • If you absolutely have to send them, check with someone else how the letter comes across. You may – to be as charitable as possible – have not expressed yourself well.
  • If you send in haste, in fury, without a sense check, you will make a fool of yourself – or worse.

This was one of those letters.


Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash


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