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What’s in a word? Well, plenty

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By Rob Witwer

In his terrific essay on “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell observed that “(w)hen there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Orwell spoke of a phenomenon that exists in our time as it did in his — the hijacking of language to conceal the truth behind political objectives.

Take a couple of words with which we’ve all become acquainted recently: “stimulus” and “investment.”

The dictionary defines ìstimulusî as “something that rouses or incites to activity.” In the context of current economic policy, we’re led to believe that the sum and substance of Congress’ “stimulus” package is to spur economic activity. Surely there can be nothing wrong with that.

But between the lines, great pains are being taken to mask what should be the most obvious feature of the bill. The word “stimulus” effectively hides the $819 billion elephant in the room — because that’s the amount the package will add to America’s already massive debt load. I don’t know of anyone who uses a credit card to “stimulate” his or her family’s economic activity. Instead, most sensible folks call it “going into debt,” which it is.

(As an aside, it should be noted that our kids, when revisiting the history of 2009, will likely ignore current nomenclature — they’ll remember this as a “debt” package, not a “stimulus” package. For them, it stimulates nothing more than crushing financial obligations. But I digress.)

Then we are told that the “stimulus” package contains many worthwhile “investments” in government programs. An investment, according to Merriam-Webster is “the outlay of money usually for income or profit.” Who can be against making a profit?

Of course, calling spending “investing” completely misses the point that, unlike most “investments,” the capital used to fund these programs is not existing wealth, but increased future obligations (the “d” word again).

And of course, it would be much harder to sell the voting public a bill that promises “debt-financed government spending.”

Orwell observed that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” We are, right now, being conditioned to think that piling unsustainable debt loads on our nation’s already-burdened people is going to “stimulate” economic activity and yield dividends from the wise “investments” being made by our elected leaders.

We need a dose of Orwell’s antidote for such linguistic sleight-of-hand. As he said 60 years ago, “(t)his invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases … can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”

Be on your guard. Don’t let words become a substitute for thought.

Rob Witwer, who grew up in Evergreen and currently lives in Genesee, is a former member of the state House of Representatives.