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    We Fondly Hope to Manipulate You.

    chimpanzee_speak_no_evil.jpgQuote: “Unspeak.”  Title of a new book by Stephen Poole.

    Figure of Speech: neologism, the new word.  The word itself is a synonym for commonplace, a label crafted out of boiled-down public opinion.

    Here’s yet another book bemoaning the decline of our language and the conning of us poor sops, the citizenry.  Poole’s book describes a kind of word that’s used as a “weapon,” such as pro-choice, pro-life, or reform. These terms gag debate, he says. Utter hooey, says Figaro.  They only work if we let them.

    The book’s title actually employs the same device Poole denounces.  Using our belief in unfettered speech, he applies a shocking label — unspeak — to the practice of labeling.

    What Poole claims to be a new phenomenon is at least 2,500 years old. Aristotle called it a “commonplace,” a term or phrase based on the audience’s own beliefs, values and naked self-interest.  Tax relief and tax burden, for example, are excellent commonplace labels.  Poole thinks they’re bad, because they prevent pro-tax arguments.  But what sane politician would promote a tax for the sake of taxes?  Better to emphasize the need for “fairness.” This, too, is a commonplace label — the building block of deliberative debate.

    But labels are manipulative!  Indeed they are.  Still, rhetorical manipulation requires a subtle understanding of public opinion.  What’s the alternative:  Telling it like it is?  Sticking to our guns?  We already have a president who does that.

    Besides, Figaro loves rhetoric’s refreshing lack of rules.  Rhetoric says to humanity, Don’t ever change, you’re beautiful.  Any sort of discourse that required reforming humans, as Poole proposes, would turn Figaro into a survivalist.   We don’t want to buy the world a Coke and live in perfect harmony; harmony means unanimity, and history shows that unanimity is a scary thing.

    Snappy Answer:  “That goes without saying.”

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    Reader Comments (9)

    Erm, thanks for your interest, but in point of fact "unspeak" is not a neologism, as any good dictionary might tell you. (Clue: Shakespeare, Macbeth.) Also, if you cared to read a bit of the book rather than relying on a second-hand account of it from Slate, you might be interested to find that I specifically stress it has already been going on for thousands of years:

    January 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSteven Poole
    Mr. Poole- correct me if I'm wrong, but your usage (even explanation) of the term doesn't seem to fit: "Why the name Unspeak? It is an attempt to capture the Janus-like nature of such language."

    Yet, the dictionary defines the obsolete term as "to recant; unsay". The usage doesn't seem to fit- as if you're reinventing (or just misusing) the word. In that sense, would it be a neologism?
    January 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTotovader
    We believe you're right, Toto. Figaro went back to his Shakespeare before writing the blog and found the Macbeth reference; he uses "unspeak" in the sense of "unsay"--as a verb, meaning to take back what was said. Figaro stands by the neologism.

    On the other hand, we must apologize to you, Mr. Poole. We read your intro too hastily before writing. You do indeed say that politically laden language has been around for a while; which makes your title all the more unspeakish.

    Still, we applaud any book that seeks to examine political language. And we've ordered the book.
    January 23, 2007 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    No, it isn't a neologism, because a neologism is a newly created word. OED: " 1. a. A word or phrase which is new to the language; one which is newly coined." What I have done is proposed a new sense (as noun) of a word that already existed (as verb). No letters have changed in this adding of a new sense to a pre-existing word. New senses alone do not make new words, and so do not make neologisms.

    Nor, as you suggest in your post, is the word's proposed sense that of "commonplace", either in the normal current sense, a platitude or triusm (OED a 5), or in the traditional rhetorical sense given at OED a 1: "With the ancient rhetoricians: A passage of general application, such as may serve as the basis of argument; a leading text cited in argument."

    Still, I hope you enjoy the book.
    January 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSteven Poole
    While we haven't read your book yet, we have read Aristotle's Rhetoric; he offers a much subtler explanation for a commonplace than the OED does. (We wouldn't rely on the OED to help us much with issue labeling or framing, either.) For a modern interpretation, we'd steer you to "Thank You for Arguing," but it doesn't come out until Feb 27.

    As for the neologism, that's a kindlier term than "solecism," which language snobs might apply to a word that's retrofitted with a new meaning. (And by language snobs, we don't mean the OED. So please don't trouble to look up "solecism".)

    For what it's worth we think "Unspeak" is a brilliant title, albeit unspeakish.

    January 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Perhaps using the word "unspeak" with a different meaning does make it a neologism, albeit also a homonym.

    (I have not read the book but it sounds interesting)
    January 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew F
    Well, "neologism" may be "kindlier", in your estimation, but it is still, in point of fact, wrong. I suppose a "language snob" who was so ignorant as not to know that words are always being retrofitted with extra meanings might complain, if he was too stupid to take notice of the historically consistent evidence from dictionaries on the matter - but I am sure you-plural are not of that dumb breed.

    You may have read Aristotle's Rhetoric, but you give a poor account of it in your post. For Aristotle, commonplaces (topoi) are widely applicable forms of argument that appeal to the audience's understanding of how the world works in general, eg conjecture about the future based on past evidence, extrapolation from smaller to larger, and ideas of probability. That is plainly not what I mean by Unspeak. Cicero, on the other hand, does have more relevant things to say on the subject of argumentative naming: you will no doubt be relieved to know that I cite him, along with many others.
    January 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSteven Poole
    If I understand this correctly, you have taken the historical word "unspeak" and attatched to it a new meaning. A meaning not clearly related to any of its historical definitions.
    Since you seem to be interacting here, would you mind giving us a rigorous definition of "unspeak?"

    For myself, not because I want to get out of reading your book, but so I can see if I want to read it.

    For your information, Gary Curtis has weighed in on your book over at "The Fallacy Files:"

    January 24, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdogscratcher
    By the way I read both of your books and enjoyed both (the office jargon one just arrived) I read Figaros book sometime ago but a recent return to interest in the pre-socratics has launched me headfirst into the private, amateur study of rhetoric.

    As far as I remember there is a lot of debate about what Aristotle did or didnt mean by commonplace, and no doubt the word has accreted other meanings over the centuries. If I was to follow Stephen's approach in Unspeak, we would say that the Unspeak title is a stand-in for a type of practice where one uses general terms in political debate which smuggle in all sorts of positions and arguments without expressly naming them. The debate then hinges around whether the title of the book is, itself that sort of practice. If Stephen is attempting to 'smuggle in unargued material', what is that material?the difference, as I see it, is that many of Stephen's targets would be loathe to admit to non card-carrying supporters that the other meanings mean what they mean, however I don;t think Stephen is guilty of that here.There is a more fundamental philosophical debate brewing under the surface here about whether it is better to conduct political debates with your cards on the table or with trojan horses.Incidentally you could almost replace unspeak (the practice) with 'enthymeme' in the way Figaro describes it.

    To figaro, I would say, how would you look on this exchange from your own perspective, did it become a 'fight' instead of 'argument'? I also think that the common parlance understanding of 'neologism' definitely includes solecism or retrofitted meanings....so we are arguing about definition more than what Figaro actually aimed at.
    January 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLyndon

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