Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Registering a Complaint about Registers

The biggest language story these days is the use of the S-word by President Bush before a microphone he did not know was live. This has happened so many times to presidents over the past decade or so, you have to wonder whether he did not make the statement intentionally to demonstrate his toughness to the hawks in his party.

President Bush told Prime Minister Blair at the G8 Summit in St. Petersburg, “What they need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s–t and it’s over.” The Prime Minister has been chided for referring to international commerce as “this trade thingy”.

In an article that appeared today in the London Times, “The new language of diplomacy“, Magnus Linklater, tongue in cheek, suggested that this simplicity might be refreshing. It would, of course, require a rewriting of the language of diplomacy. He suggests that Western diplomats might want to say, “We’re cool with that,” rather than express “warmest approval”. Rather than taking exception to a hostile act, we might inform other nations that, “We is close to squeezing the trigger.”

The issue here is a question of registers. We do not speak the same in all situations. We use language differently in the local bar (or pub) than we do on a job interview. In the bar we might say, “I’ve got to blow this joint. It’s getting’ late.” On a job interview, we are more likely to say, “I have to leave now, it is rather late and I have another interview.”

Diplomatic language is another level, another registry. Everyone involved in diplomacy understands that language. They know the difference between “The US is uncomfortable with . . . and “The US is gravely disturbed by . . . .” The language is civil and in these belligerent times, civility is as important as clarity.

Of course, presidents and prime ministers are not diplomats per se; however, they frequently play diplomatic roles. This is certainly true when they are before a microphone or camera. It therefore behooves presidents and prime ministers to be familiar with the language of diplomacy, let alone that of the normal body politic (terms such as terrorist attacks (rather than “that s–t”) and international commerce (rather than “trade thingy”). Apparently this fact does not register with all the current leaders of the English-speaking world.

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