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The language of politics: “Enhanced interrogation techniques”

- May 29, 2009

Circumlocutions, euphemisms, and doublespeak play crucial roles in the language of politics; if you have any remaining doubt about that, it’s time for you to dig into some sources as varied as Aristotle, George Orwell, Murray Edelman, or George Lakoff, or to check out the burgeoning researach literature on “framing” effects that goes back to Erving Goffman. “Mistakes were made” is much more politically palatable than “I screwed up,” “That statement is no longer operative” sounds much better than “You caught us in a lie,” and “Vietnamization” plays far better in Peoria than “withdrawal.”

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve been especially interested in the emerging and rapidly escalating battle for linguistic supremacy between the long-standing though roundly despised champion, “torture,” and the promising and much better mannered contender, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Here’s how things seem to be going: The champ is still well ahead on the media scorecard, but the contender is catching up.

And here’s the basis for that conclusion:


This is the timeline I just constructed of the number of articles in U.S. newspapers, aggregated into two-month periods beginning in January, 2004 and running through today, in which the term “enhanced interrogation techniques” has appeared. The data source is the online LexisNexis Academic database.

A couple of notes:

(1) The rightmost entry is for May 1 through May 29 (today), a period of just under one month; all the other entries, as noted above, are for two-month periods. So the sharp rise that’s shown at the end of the timeline is clearly an underestimate relative to all the other data points. How much of an underestimate? If we assume that these references will continue through the end of June at the pace they’ve established so far this month, then the May-June figure should be approximately 800.

(2) The “compared to what?” question is always important with data of this type. So as benchmarks, I’ll note that:

bq. (a) The comparable figure for articles referring to “torture” so far this month is 2,795, more than seven times the number of articles referring to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Obviously, the more established term is still dominant.

bq. (b) On the other hand, the growth curve hasn’t been nearly as sharp for bimonthly references to “torture” as for “enhanced interrogation techniques.” While “enhanced interrogation techniques” have shot up from a mere handful to the projected 800 or so, “torture” has held much steadier within the 2,000 to 4,000 interval.