Ugly Phrase Conceals an Uglier Truth
Behind the US Government’s corruption of language lies a far greater perversion
by Salman Rushdie
January 9, 2006
Beyond any shadow of a doubt, the ugliest phrase to enter the English language last year was “extraordinary rendition”. To those of us who love words, this phrase’s brutalisation of meaning is an infallible signal of its intent to deceive.
“Extraordinary” is an ordinary enough adjective, but its sense is being stretched here to include more sinister meanings that your dictionary will not provide: secret; ruthless; and extrajudicial.
As for “rendition”, the English language permits four meanings: a performance; a translation; a surrender – this meaning is now considered archaic; or an “act of rendering”; which leads us to the verb “to render” among whose 17 possible meanings you will not find “to kidnap and covertly deliver an individual or individuals for interrogation to an undisclosed address in an unspecified country where torture is permitted”.
Language, too, has laws, and those laws tell us this new American usage is improper – a crime against the word. Every so often the habitual newspeak of politics throws up a term whose calculated blandness makes us shiver with fear – yes, and loathing.
“Clean words can mask dirty deeds,” The New York Times columnist William Safire wrote in 1993, in response to the arrival of another such phrase, “ethnic cleansing”.
“Final solution” is a further, even more horrible locution of this Orwellian, double-plus-ungood type. “Mortality response”, a euphemism for death by killing that I first heard during the Vietnam War, is another. This is not a pedigree of which any newborn usage should be proud.
People use such phrases to avoid using others whose meaning would be problematically over-apparent. “Ethnic cleansing” and “final solution” were ways of avoiding the word “genocide”, and to say “extraordinary rendition” is to reveal one’s squeamishness about saying “the export of torture”. However, as Cecily remarks in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, “When I see a spade, I call it a spade”, and what we have here is not simply a spade, it’s a shovel – and it’s shovelling a good deal of ordure.
Salmon Rushdie is the writer who got himself a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini, because of his book The Satanic Verses.