‘Zero-Tasking’ With A Tall Latte: Unmasking The Art Of ‘Spinglish’ by [email protected]
Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf on ‘Spinglish‘
Here’s the unvarnished truth: Corporate executives, politicians and, indeed, almost every group of people with power and authority have become addicted to spin. Instead of communicating clearly, their official words descend into tortured jargon designed not to reveal, but to conceal, and to make the unpleasant (for example, “mass firings”) sound a bit more appealing (“rightsizing”).
The more syllables and 50-cent words they can throw at a simple concept, the more likely they are to get away with it. But Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf don’t want those powerful obfuscators to have it so easy. The former National Lampoon staffers have put together a book delving into this sneaky lingo: Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language. On the [email protected] show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111, the two authors talked about their book, how the art of deceptive language has been practiced from original spinner Julius Caesar to modern masters in Washington and on Wall Street, and discussed their favorite examples of spin.
You can listen to the interview using the player above. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
[email protected]: Henry, Chris, I truly enjoyed going through this book and looking at some of the terms you came up with.
Christopher Cerf: And Dan, we’re appreciative, and we’re also happy that you said that you “truly” enjoyed it rather than “virtually.”
[email protected]: Exactly. This has happened in the last five years or so, where a term will become part of the vernacular of somebody at a higher level, and then it will filter down and become part of the vernacular of the public, which is probably one of the most frustrating things in this process.
Henry Beard: It really is, because we’ve developed a second language, a language in addition to English. Which, of course, is still English, but English itself has a million words and was already made up of two languages: English — that is, old Anglo-Saxon — and Latin, which is where all of the multisyllabic and invasive words come from. I didn’t “kill you,” I “terminated you with extreme prejudice.”
But yes, over the last five years, particularly due to social media and the requirement for people to be available 24 hours a day — particularly politicians, but any kind of spokesperson or spin doctor — they need to have language on their lips all the time. They get in the habit of coming up with things that, if they seem a little off color, they won’t be caught that badly with.
[email protected]: I’m guessing that, in part, your comedic backgrounds led you to write this book.
Cerf: I think that’s really true. In fact, Henry and I have always had an interest in language and using it in a satiric way, or pointing out the silly things about it. We did a book on politically correct language — a dictionary — about 10 to 15 years ago, which was a quasi-bestseller, or a semi-bestseller, as people put it. That, of course, means it was not quite a bestseller.
“The first and most dramatic example of spin was uttered by Julius Caesar when he killed at least 1 million people to conquer Gaul, and he called it ‘pacification.’” –Henry Beard
[email protected]: Right, exactly.
Cerf: But it sounds so much better. And, in fact, we bill ourselves as semi-bestselling satirists.
[email protected]: For people who haven’t checked the book out, this is literally a dictionary.
[email protected]: There’s no real narrative to the book, there’s no story.
Cerf: Well, the narrative is only in the definitions. We try to explain where all of these words came from. And we have not only a Spinglish-to-English dictionary to help you understand what business people and politicians are saying, and how they are lying to you, but we also have an English-to-Spinglish section so you can do it yourself and put things over on your friends and colleagues whenever you want to.
[email protected]: There is quite a historic element to this type of language.
Beard: Yes, amazingly enough. The first and most dramatic example of spin was uttered by Julius Caesar when he killed at least 1 million people to conquer Gaul, and he called it “pacification.” It’s ironic that 2,000 years later in the Vietnam War, we used exactly the same term to describe equally violent things. So yes, it’s been around a long time.
[email protected]: “Spinglish” is, in its way, a language unto its own, but it is incredibly frustrating for the majority of the public to, for example, watch the evening news and hear a politician or corporate CEO using a lot of these terms. For most people, it has to drive them crazy.
Beard: Well, I think it does. And I think one of the reasons Donald Trump has done as well as he has — among many other reasons — is that he is perceived as not being one of the people who use obfuscation and elaborate terms. But fascinatingly enough — and Chris had mentioned the politically correct dictionary that he and I did some years ago — Donald Trump has managed to use the term “political correctness” itself as a form of spin.
The way he uses it, political correctness refers to obeying the law, following the Constitution of the United States, not shooting immigrants at the border, doing anything that isn’t immediately a violent show of American force. So I think you’re quite right about the news. It’s become such a habit. And all of the candidates from both parties, with very few exceptions, find ways to do it. And Chris, we covered how many debates where we came up with new spin terms that they were spinning?
Cerf: Every single one. Henry and I have a little gig on Literary Hub, which is the Atlantic Monthly’s website, where we translate every debate after it’s over. So we’re getting ready for two this week.
[email protected]: How many words did you come up with for this book?
Cerf: There are at least a couple of thousand in there, probably a few more.
Beard: And the scary thing is we didn’t make any of them up. We sourced them all and we’ve got footnotes to prove it. And with some of them we ourselves were astonished, gobsmacked, laughed out loud — they are out there, they are being created even as we speak.
[email protected]: One of the funny ones is “disposable mucus recovery system.” If you don’t know what that is, it’s Kleenex.
“You would never pay $11 for a box of Kleenex, but a ‘disposable mucus recovery system?’ Cheap at the price.” –Chris Cerf
Cerf: It’s Kleenex or a box of Kleenex, but the reason that was invented — because all of these words were invented to deceive you in one way or another – is that hospitals, a specific hospital actually, used that term so they could charge $11 for it on your hospital bill. And you would never pay $11 for a box of Kleenex, but a ‘disposable mucus recovery system’? Cheap at that price.
[email protected]: It’s almost a little bit of a justification, isn’t it?
Cerf: Well, it’s covering it up. It’s reality augmentation, as we like to call it.
[email protected]: Based on the jokes going around for years about the military and