High above the Language Lounge, affixed to a mast bracketed to the roof and connected by wires intricately interwoven into the Visual Thesaurus, is a delicate scientific instrument. The name of this instrument is spin detector. In order to prevent confusion with the other kind of spin detector - the one used by high-energy physicists to detect the property called spin in subatomic particles - we sometimes call our spin detector by its other name: the hooeyometer. This sensitive and irreplaceable device monitors language as it flies through the ether, making note of usages that gratuitously push the boundaries of meaning. When infractions are detected, the hooeyometer sends impulses electronically into the Lounge. This sets up a trembling in the Visual Thesaurus which the Loungeurs, who slumber not nor sleep, investigate.

At present we have the spin detector on a special limited setting, which we call "two for one." It notes uses of language that employ two words where common sense suggests that one word would do the job satisfactorily. The idea for the "two for one" setting arose out of an observation: the American Dialect Society (ADS), in its annual Word of the Year competition, always singles out a term in the category of "most euphemistic," and more often than not, the winning words in this category are compound terms, consisting of two or more words. This suggests to us that when speakers and writers wish to make a slight detour around bald truth, it often takes more than one word to get there. A case in point: the 2005 winner in the most euphemistic category was "badly sourced," a term used by then Secretary of State Colin Powell and others as a euphemism for false. If you look at the wordmap of false, it's pretty clear why it is a word that is best avoided if one wants to put a positive spin on things.

We were reminded of "badly sourced" by a term that recently came sparking down the wires from the hooeyometer and jolted us all out of our reveries. The term is globally resourced. This is a locution that is still relatively new to English and we expect that its users were not entirely confident of it themselves, for they dared not give it expression in speech: when we traced it back to its source we found that it was merely flashed on the television screen, for about two seconds, during a commercial from an Asian car manufacturer that boasted of its auto assembly plant located in the United States. The full phrase was "using globally resourced parts." Just what does globally resourced mean? You will search for the phrase in vain on your chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or on your Louis Vuitton Alizé® 24-Heures canvas valise, but the shorter and more direct version of globally resourced is the more familiar adjective imported.

Imported has an impeccable pedigree in English (first recorded usage: 1660) and it has never changed its meaning, but it has always been a double-edged sword. Its context determines everything about whether its associations are laudable or deplorable. Everyone seems to agree that imported cheese, wines, fashion accessories, and music CDs are a fine thing. Eyebrows go up, however, when imported designates something that, all other things being equal, would be just as good if not better procured at home. Think of pet food and toothpaste! The only friend of imported in the Visual Thesaurus is foreign, another word that does not enjoy a host of positive associations.

We suspect that the coiners of globally resourced were trying to strike a balance between truth and palatability and we commend them for their efforts, but their phrase does not pass the smell test. In fact, it has the same problem as badly sourced, and herein lies a lesson for those who would create a successful euphemism (or, depending on your point of view, a successful deployment of doublespeak): if you're going to use two words to soften the blow of one, make sure that (1) both of your words are unremarkable in their own right, and that (2) the words are strung together in a way that conforms to existing patterns, so as not call attention to one or the other.

The failing in both globally resourced and badly sourced is their use of adjectives (or past participles, if you will) from verbs that do not circulate widely outside of certain jargony circles. Source as a verb has been around for a little while (starting in the mid-20th century), but it is not common enough in ordinary discourse to be anything less than jarring when used as an adjective. Resource, on the other hand, is not even recognized as a verb in most dictionaries today - though you can expect it to turn up in the next editions of many of them, as its usage grows.

A different, relatively recent phrase that still sets the hooeyometer a-jangling whenever it is encountered (mainly in government literature) is food insecure. Followers of the ADS competition will know that this term was a winner in 1996: it is newspeak for hungry. Food insecure violates rule number (2) above: compounding via clunky syntax that has no parallel in other English terms. We suspect that the coiners of food insecure thought that they were on to a good thing: the earlier term food security is not a euphemism but a technical term to describe the state of having dependable access to nutrition. There are many established compounds in which security is the second term (national ~, airport ~, border ~, job ~), so this term fits a pattern and is easily integrated into mainstream English. There are no established adjectival compounds, however, in which insecure is the second term, and so food insecure is a Bridge Too Far: it is a term that will probably always stick out like a sore thumb, thus inviting auditors and readers to question what it really means.

Those who would spin a circuitous compound term with the hope that it will settle seamlessly into the heart of English would do well to study some time-honored examples. We suggest, for starters, water closet and restroom (for toilet), manufactured home (for trailer), or friendly fire (for fratricide). In the meantime, the hooeyometer will remain vigilant, in its modest attempt to keep the world safe from duplicity.

You can read about the ADS's words of the year here:

http://www.americandialect.org/index.php/amerdial/categories/C178/

These two websites keep tabs on spin. The latter is mainly UK-oriented (or, we should say, orientated).

http://www.prwatch.org/spin
http://www.spinwatch.org/


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Sunday July 1st 2007, 4:46 AM
Comment by: Diane G.
My fellow humanist forum rats & and I were recently talking about the poor, and deciding that that soon may become a non-PC term. As a substitute someone suggested "differently wealthy."

Perhaps you should have a contest for or keep a list of the best "Two for One" submissions you receive.

--dng
Sunday July 1st 2007, 8:31 AM
Comment by: Gene V.
I thought the doublespeak term for "poor" was "economically challenged." Perhaps that is too broad a term, however, since it might as easily apply to the folks lounging along skid row as it does to those living in public housing projects, where "fixed income" might be best applied--but oh, I guess that one is reserved for retirees with no pensions who must make do with Social Security and Medicare...
Sunday July 1st 2007, 9:00 AM
Comment by: Gene V.
Ack! I just realized I was "otherly successful" (=I failed) and passed the smell test with "economically challenged". Here's one: Colin Powell may have used the term "badly sourced," but we might just as easily say his information was "otherly sourced" (=a lie). You can apply "otherly" to a range of terms: otherly gifted, otherly employed, otherly sighted, otherly social, and so forth, for all kinds of positive spin.
Sunday July 1st 2007, 10:44 AM
Comment by: Mukesh P.
very good comments. the language and word usage, becomes poetic when it flows. your hooeyometer and its variety of testing capacity takes us to the subtle side of the word which makes it educational as well as entertaing. Overall the article is very much gripping.
Sunday July 1st 2007, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Constance S.
I always enjoy your articles and wish I could share them with friends. They are always interesting and thought provoking.
Sunday July 1st 2007, 11:09 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Very interesting article and I will challenge my brain, but not overly. I'm at the stage where doing that might put it at risk!

My own language meter was recently challenged by an account about a lovely island in the Caribbean where there was: a rock that has lied there for eons.

Simple grammar lacking there, no attempt at evasion. But it did set my neurons to tumbling about what words could be added, other than 'star', so that the sentence would make sense.

I think that much of the 'doublespeak', like that error, is distracting as it causes an abrupt 'eh?' which interfers with the flow of the speech or thought -- if indeed there were a thought.
Sunday July 1st 2007, 1:07 PM
Comment by: Laurie F.
Another two for one that has become quite accepted by now, but which still pings my own hooeyometer, is "previously owned". Who wouldn't rather buy a Camry that someone else had generously worked all the kinks out of?
Sunday July 1st 2007, 1:30 PM
Comment by: Laurie F.
...and thinking about it further (because I'm editing a document that is just swimming in these things and it's annoying me) it's not only the "adjectivizing" of a word that has only recently been "verbed" that makes it sound bad. Sure, it's awkward to the ear, but there's an evasion, too, and that comes, I think, more from the fact that it's an incredibly passive construct. "The information had been sourced" is just as bad as "badly sourced." As if the information itself was completely in charge of it's own authenticity, and the speaker, standing there, eyes wide open, hands in the air, had NOTHING to do with it.

"Not my fault. It was badly sourced."
Monday July 2nd 2007, 4:04 AM
Comment by: Peter Y.
My favourite is still "ethnic cleansing" for genocide. I always picture "ethnic cleansing" as an old-fashioned term for giving a small "black" child (a picaninny) a bath.
Wednesday November 21st 2007, 2:52 AM
Comment by: Robert C.
"Fatally killed" is high on my rage list. I've bumped into it often enough in newspaper reports and while listening to well coiffed television reporters. It makes me want to unholster and start shooting.

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