When is a water charge not a water charge?

Opinion: ‘A Quit Yizzer Protesting Here’s A Hundred Quid Initiative (QYPHAHQI) would have less of a ring to it’

‘I’d imagine Government is absolutely raging that the term “water charges” ever even gained traction, that they never managed to call it the Water Support System, or the Facilitatory Programme for Liquid Assets.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘I’d imagine Government is absolutely raging that the term “water charges” ever even gained traction, that they never managed to call it the Water Support System, or the Facilitatory Programme for Liquid Assets.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

One of the finest pieces of Irish satire in recent years is Irish Pictorial Weekly’s depiction of civil servants sitting around a table inventing spin. There’s a great scene with Enda Kenny’s fictional speechwriters heading to the pub before being halted by a call from the Taoiseach looking for a speech.

“You know the way you like to say the words starting with the same letter?” one speechwriter begins. “‘I have the commitment, the compassion, and the competence’ – compassion means caring, Taoiseach – ‘to lead the people of Ireland to recovery. Together with my team, I draw confidence from the spirit, the tenacity, and the togetherness.’ I know they don’t all begin with T, Taoiseach . . . ”

Another speechwriter grabs the phone. “‘Together, we’ll turn this around, and will overcome this crisis, when we’re together.’ And then just say ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ or something.”

The first one wrestles the phone back. “‘You’ll never beat the Irish.’ No, don’t sing it, Taoiseach. Just say it like a Taoiseach would.”

Being in opposition is great because your language can be totally populist, whereas language on the government side has to do merry dances through filters and around obstacles to give the unpalatable realities enough sheen that hopefully distracts people from what the initiatives actually are.

Non-straight talk

I imagine Government is raging that the term “water charges” ever gained traction, that they never managed to call it the Water Support System, or the Facilitatory Programme for Liquid Assets.

The most offensive of all terms is Universal Social Charge (USC), which doesn’t mean anything, but suggests we would universally benefit from some sort of collective monetary contribution to society. Using its actual name – Infinite Pit of Banking Debt Sucker Payment (IPBDSP)– is just a bit too real.

“Spare me the grim litany of the realist, give me the unrealistic aspirations of the optimist any day,” as former US secretary of state Colin Powell once said. Presumably he wasn’t thinking of that the day he presented cartoon drawings of “WMDs” in Iraq, dressed up in spin to the UN.

Another of my favourites is the “Student Contribution”. In reality, a student contribution is the offering that third-level graduates make to society. In Government language, it’s a few grand. When you say “Student Contribution Charge” three times in the mirror, Niamh Bhreathnach (the former minister who abolished fees) appears wearing a stripy pantsuit and hits you in the face with a hard-bound thesis. Try it.

Spin speak

There’s a vibe of laundry detergent ads about the Government’s use of language. You know those washing powder ads, where the voiceover informs you that this latest stain remover is twice as good as the last, automatically undermining the commitments made in a previous commercial? Bang! and the D.I.R.T. is gone.

Advertising offers the ultimate distortion of language, making up terms to simultaneously confuse us and impress upon us a necessity by manufacturing fear. This must be good for you: Fine Gael, the L Casei Immunitas Party.

George Orwell’s depiction of “doublethink” in 1984 is often referenced regarding the distortion of language and thought, but he sums it up better in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language.

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness . . . The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When 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.”

The language of advertising is central to the Government’s marketing of information – so much so that there’s been a movement in Government and its agencies to come up with ads for even ourselves.

The most recent 1916 commemoration video manufactures Ireland as some kind of pitch to a richer investor. This contemporary narrative is almost jaded now, reinforcing our modern “rebranding” with the slogan “The best small country in the world in which to do business”.

Our Government seems to prefer a version of Ireland that is a marketable product dressed up in spin-speak rather than an actual society.

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