Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for January 23rd, 2007

What do 200 calories look like?

Posted by metaphorical on 23 January 2007

Wisegeek has a sobering page for anyone who cares about what they eat or how much they weigh. It shows pictures of 90 foods that are 200 calories, giving their weights in grams and ounces.


One-half of a rather plain-looking Jack In The Box cheeseburger, just about two and a half ounces, makes the list. So does bacon, at a measly 34 g (1.2 oz).

It takes a whopping 3 lbs of celery to get to 200 calories, or a pound and half of either broccoli or carrots. But the news isn’t all good for vegetarians.

Peanut butter weighs in at exactly the same, um, weight, as bacon—1.2 oz, about a single finger-scoop. If you order french fries instead of that half-burger, you only get about two and a half ounces of them for your 200 calories.

The news is worst of all for the sweet-toothed. Less than a single glazed donut tips the scale; so does just 8 chocolate kisses.

Sites like these are important, if only because your government won’t help you, at least not when it comes to food labeling. In fact, in this case the libertarians may be right about government. By overseeing labeling poorly, we’re worse off then if it didn’t exercise any oversight at all.

On 12 January 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a modification to the definition of the term “lean.” The motive, as explained by petitioner and noted health-food manufacturer Nestle Prepared Foods Co., isn’t crazy—it was to provide for prepared foods or, in agency parlance, “mixed dishes not measurable with a cup”.

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We’re choking language with spikes and surges

Posted by metaphorical on 23 January 2007

Robert Fisk had a nice rant last week about Orwellian euphemisms (though George himself wasn’t cited).

This jargon disease is choking language.

Only this week I received another request, this time to join “ethics practitioners” to “share evidence-based practices on dealing with current ethical practices” around the world. What on earth does this mean? Why do people write like this?

There is something repulsive about this vocabulary, an aggressive language of superiority in which “key players” can “interact” with each other, can “impact” society, “outsource” their business – or “downsize” the number of their employees. They need “feedback” and “input”. They think “outside the box” or “push the envelope”. They have a “work space”, not a desk. They need “personal space” – they need to be left alone – and sometimes they need “time and space”, a commodity much in demand when marriages are failing.

These lies and obfuscations are infuriating. “Downsizing” employees means firing them; “outsourcing” means hiring someone else to do your dirty work. “Feedback” means “reaction”, “input” means “advice”. Thinking “outside the box” means, does it not, to be “imaginative”?

It is a disease, this language, caught by one of our own New Labour ministers on the BBC last week when he talked about “environmental externalities”. Presumably, this meant “the weather”. Similarly, an architect I know warned his client of the effect of the “aggressive saline environment” on a house built near the sea. If this advice seems obscure, we might be “conflicted” about it – who, I ask myself, invented the false reflexive verb?

I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about “environmental externalities,” however. In the language of economists, politicians, and U.N. bureaucrats, an externality is a cost that is borne by someone other than the actor whose behavior generates it. We are allowed to sue the maker of a defective car so that the hospital bills aren’t externalized by the car’s manufacturer.

Consider all that packaging that we have to tear apart and throw out whenever we buy so much as a dozen galvanized nails. The companies that shrould nails in cardboard and plastic don’t have to pay for the landfill it fills all too quickly. That’s an example of an environmental externality.

And if the highly educated Robert Fisk can be confused by this euphemism, that’s all the proof we need that, as Orwell wrote, “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”

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