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Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality Hardcover – April 11, 2006

3.9 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Politicians are held in such low esteem these days that most people assume they are lying or twisting the truth until proven otherwise. Now, as if to confirm that bit of popular wisdom, Guardian contributor Poole (Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution), addresses "unspeak," his term for politically loaded language in which a sound bite implies an entire unspoken political argument. With ample outrage and barbed wit, Poole unpacks some of the most prevalent—and politically charged—expressions animating today's political and media discourse, from "intelligent design" to "global warming," "collateral damage" to the "war on terror." His targets are staples of liberal complaint against current ideology, with much of the book—and his contempt—devoted to disentangling the propaganda that has been marshaled on behalf of the "war on terror" and the war in Iraq. Poole's goal is not only to shed light on how politicians manipulate language to justify their actions but also to shame the media into rejecting the official line rather than parroting government talking points. This book takes no word at face value, which will anger some and enlighten others, just as a book of social and linguistic commentary should. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Addressing the politics of language in excoriating fashion, journalist and author Poole (Trigger Happy: Video Games and the Entertainment Revolution, 2000) scrolls through ubiquitous terms such as war on terror, pro-life, and Operation Just Cause, labeling these phrases as unspeak for their attempt to silence any possible opposing viewpoint by casting an issue in only one light. Arguing that such phrases are not neutral but "smuggle in political opinion . . . in a remarkably efficient way," he proceeds to analyze the implications of an ongoing effort by politicians and interest groups to manipulate our language, for example, substituting global warming with climate change as a way of recasting the debate about environmental pollution in less-frightening terms. Similarly, what was once referred to as creationismis now called intelligent design by fundamentalists intent on passing off their religious beliefs as scientific theory. Furthermore, Poole maintains that journalists often parrot terms handed to them by corporations and politicians, aiding in passing these phrases into mainstream usage. Thought-provoking analysis of an insidious trend. Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press (April 11, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802118259
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802118257
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,243,130 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is one of those books I've been waiting for: a calm but clever look at politicians' language. Poole doesn't take what politicians say at face value and then whine about it, and nor does he simply dismiss as lies everything politicians say. Instead, Poole listens carefully to political language to show how meanings are smuggled into certain terms and phrases and, in particular, how these terms or phrases insinuate that people holding an opposing position are wrong (think "Friends of the Earth": you don't support them? Well, then you must be an "Enemy of the Earth"!) The book is full of examples from both sides of the Atlantic, including charged terms like "ethnic cleansing", "terrorist suspect" and "climate change". Even with such important and difficult subject matter, Poole is entertaining as well as convincing. And it doesn't matter what your political bent is because, as Poole shows, no political party has a monopoly on Unspeak. Every journalist and blogger who does not want to be a simple relay between politician and public, or an uncritical purveyor of careful political manipulation, should become familiar with this book. And if you read this book, you will pay attention to news and the blogs in a whole new way.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I'd recommend Unspeak as: (a) The highest form of escapism - a vital polemic so engagingly and elegantly written that it wipes out everything else you might have been thinking or worrying about when you opened it. Since it has something important to say about most of the most critical wrangles of our time, it is virtuous escapism. (b) A gift to please or flatter any recipient who is or wants to be considered intelligent.

This is the rarest kind of book that reflects a monumental concentration of thought and creative energy - a striking contrast to most books today, which are written fighting the distractions of the author's other work, or as a "night job". I don't know how Poole pulled off this feat - or if Unspeak actually had the benefit of his undivided attention - but that's the way his book reads.

Reviewers who have only skimmed the text are making two serious mistakes in their descriptions of Unspeak. Contrary to what Nick Beard (customer review, below) says, the book is not remotely a magazine article on stilts. True, its big idea, though subtle, can be swiftly summarised as "a style of language that attempts to smuggle in an unspoken argument by insinuation." But the Socratic method can also be shrunk to a nugget, yet learning how Socratic dialogue works requires exposition, examples - and practice.

The worse mistake is casting the author as a prisoner of left-wing thinking. In fact, what Poole demonstrates - often with lacerating wit - is that the Left is just as adept at Unspeak's creepy manipulations, as in . . .

** . . . US and UK politicians' use of the word "community" in ways that, on close examination, add up to a "mental anaesthetic, novocaine for the soul.
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Format: Paperback
In this insightful book, journalist Steven Poole shows how our rulers abuse language to promote and disguise war, torture and corporate interests. Words have consequences: as he observes, a jury deciding whether a crime was murder or manslaughter is not conducting a linguistic exercise. Similarly, when `freedom is on the march' (Bush), governments can describe murderous and illegal invasions as benign `regime change' and `humanitarian intervention'.

Poole brilliantly contrasts reality and deceptions across many different areas. The phrase `faith communities' defines the people referred to as united monolithically and for ever by their beliefs. `Human nature' is code for misanthropic pessimism about human affairs, so war is said to symbolise `the depravity of human nature'.

On climate change, Greenpeace's chief scientist preferred the frightener `climate meltdown'. Corporations, religious and commercial, use advertising slogans like `Intelligent Design' (more accurately, Implicit Deism), `sound science', `natural' gas and `organic' produce.

Operations Merciful Angel (Kosovo), Just Cause (Panama) and Iraqi Freedom - such cute names! - `serviced' targets and `delivered' force packages: hardly killing people at all. NATO's weapons are always `smart' and `surgical'. NATO forces drop sweet little `bomblets' and playful `daisy cutters'. So the inevitable killings of civilians, women and children can only be `tragic mistakes', or not even the slaughter of civilians, women or children: as the US Army spokesman said, "If it's dead and Vietnamese, it's VC." By contrast, the enemy's weapons are nothing less than Weapons of Mass Destruction, with big capital letters, so they are much more frightening than our puny bombers and aircraft carriers and tanks.
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Format: Paperback
If all citizens had Steven Poole's mental clarity, intellectual rigour, and intolerance of con-artistry, we would all have better governments and live better lives. Politicians (and corporations) would not be allowed to get away with spouting thinly-disguised propaganda, and using language deliberately chosen to convey certain opinions and prevent the very expression of contrary opinions. Voters would immediately spot meretricious arguments, intentional fallacies, and answers that beg the question. In the real world, unfortunately, we have to manage with a population that has mastered the English language well enough for everyday purposes, but mostly remain helpless suckers for skilfully camouflaged rhetoric.

Poole jumps right in by examining the familiar phrases "pro-choice", "tax relief", and "Friends of the Earth". He points out that choice, relief, and friendship are all considered good things under almost all circumstances, so these phrases are calculated to receive almost automatic approval before any process of analytical thought even begins. Often, indeed, they may completely foreclose the possibility of rational analysis, triggering knee-jerk emotional reactions (favourable ones in these three cases). You might feel, on consideration, that abortion is not always justifiable; or that taxes should not be cut; or that the Friends of the Earth may have done things that you would not approve of. But the names "pro-choice", "tax relief", and "Friends of the Earth" are calculated to stop you short before you do any considering. This is what Poole means by "Unspeak" - language that smuggles in a particular point of view and prevents alternative thoughts from even getting a foothold.
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