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.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.