In a Word

The clever turn of phrase can help advance a policy agenda.

The late Tom Novotny once asked me whether he should change the name of The Bureaucrat, his quarterly journal about government. I voted no even though I knew that the word's connotation was "largely negative," as Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, observes. As a result, says Wikipedia, "Those who are the members of a governmental bureaucracy usually prefer terms such as civil servant or public servant to describe their jobs. The negative connotation is fueled by the perception that bureaucrats lack creativity [and] are unmotivated."

I argued that The Bureaucrat was a good title, likely seen by its audience (of public servants) as connoting a gentle and self-deprecating sense of humor about life in government, which we all know is less than perfect. But I was not persuasive, and The Bureaucrat is now The Public Manager. It's a serious title, connoting both subject matter and the audience, much like the title of the publication you are reading now.

Language matters. It conveys or sometimes conceals intent. It can communicate values. It can serve to invent new ways of saying and thinking about what we do.

"Language conveys culture," said the late Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski last year. "In order to change the culture, you must change language. You cannot expect old language to carry new ideas." As our columnist Brian Friel reports this month, Cebrowski changed Pentagon thinking with the invention of terms like "network-centric warfare" and "self-synchronization."

Conservatives have been masters of the language game. In the abortion wars, they positioned themselves as "pro-life," as if anyone were against life. The opposition became "pro-choice," in a relatively weak rhetorical retort. University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff has remarked on the Bush administration's use of the phrase "tax relief," which, he says, "got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. . . . For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add 'tax' to 'relief' and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain." With the "relievers" winning fiscal battles, the nation sinks ever deeper into debt.

The Patriot Act was another brilliant rhetorical coup: It positioned policies raising serious civil liberties issues as "patriotic." In a recent flap at NASA, described by Beth Dickey, a young PR ideologue tried to force the addition of the word "theory" to any mention made of the Big Bang. Shades of the "intelligent design" debate.

Our cover story this month profiles the CIA's John O. Brennan, who undertook the huge culture-change challenge of promoting terrorism information-sharing among powerful government fiefdoms. I would guess that a single semantic shift aided his cause: renaming the Terrorist Threat Integration Center the National Counterterrorism Center.

Dickey's account of attempted "culture change" at NASA leaves one unconvinced that much is changing. More meetings, more "lipstick cams," do not make for much of a transformation.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook