Jargonbuster: Plus ça change

… plus c’est la même chose

The World Today
1 minute READ

Politics continues to be a place words go to be emptied of meaning and returned to the pool of language as exhausted husks. Before the Scottish referendum, Ed Miliband wrote a plea in a Sunday newspaper that used the word ‘change’ 17 times in 650 words. Given that he was begging people to vote No to independence – that is, to keep things the same – this might seem peculiar.

This is how politics works. The people who were really committed to preserving the United Kingdom were going to vote No anyway: the Labour leader was trying to influence the soggy middle of Scots opinion, those who were attracted by the idea of shaking things up a bit but not sure if they wanted to go the whole border-controls-and-passports thing.

Thus he used the word ‘change’ to help persuade people of the case for ‘no change’. Just as his former boss, Gordon Brown, addressing the nation from the steps of No 10 when he took over from Tony Blair in 2007 after a decade of Labour power, used ‘change’ eight times in 350 words to make a continuing government sound like a fresh start.

Thus words come to mean, if not their opposites, then something not perfectly aligned with their original meaning.

Investment means spending. Community means a group of people who refuse to talk to each other. All options are on the table means most of them are out of the question but we would rather not tell you which ones. A withdrawal of a spare-room subsidy means a bedroom tax. Or the other way round.

A strategy, which Barack Obama famously said he lacked to deal with the crisis in Iraq and Syria, is not a long-term plan to ensure victory, but a set of tactics to silence the critics.

A priority is something a politician would like to do, but cannot. A top priority is one of the most important things that a politician would have like to do but cannot, and an urgent priority is one that he or she would have liked to do quickly.

An aspiration is a nice idea that is not going to happen. A forward offer is something that you might do unless time starts to move backwards, which it might look as if it is doing at the rate of progress likely to be made.

It is not yet ‘war is peace’, but eternal vigilance is needed to keep it so.