One of the first things you notice when you move to Washington DC from the rest of America is how the specialized vocabulary of the Beltway dominates everyday conversation. Washington is the only place I know of where you can have complete conversations conducted almost wholly in acronyms and seemingly plain terms not used elsewhere: “I’ll be sending out an RFP for the OMB’s reverse markup of the omnibus stopgap DQA appropriation for the EPA’s CAA double topspin rejection of the CR.” (Perhaps there’s a little of this on Wall Street and in Hollywood, but those industries are situated within metropolises with genuine diversity. There is no cultural diversity in DC.)
In other words, there’s a reason someone like John Kerry could say something as self-evidently silly as “I actually voted for the bill before I voted against it.” It makes perfect sense to people inside the Beltway.
George Orwell warned us in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language” that “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” and last week Carl Cannon offered a splendid rundown of the “15 Most Annoying Expression in Politics“—those insincere phrases that our politicians use to provide their unending utterances with the patina of gravitas. Like:
12. “FRANKLY” Rhett Butler made this word famous, but when politicians preface their remarks with “frankly” (or “candidly”), they don’t give a damn about being frank or candid. Usually, it means they’re about to tell a whopper—or recite a talking point. Listen for this usage from now on. It’s a self-administered lie detector.
Others on the list include “With all due respect,” and “At the end of the day.” (Read the whole thing, as the saying goes.)
I’d add to this list two of my own. First, the Senate convention of referring to your ideological enemies in the other party as “My good friend.” In a few cases it is authentic, but most of the time it is a lie. (Does anyone believe that anyone—in either party—actually considers Harry Reid to be “friend” material?) Second, the manner in which “constituents” is used corrupts our politics in a subtle way, by reinforcing the function of elected representatives as people who represent interests only, rather than being part of what is intended to be a deliberative body. It is a rhetorical backstop to the pork barrel machine.
Most people adopt the pretentious rhetorical conventions when they get to Washington DC in an effort to appear sophisticated and “with it.” They fail to perceive how this specialized argot adds to the impression that Washington DC is removed from the real world beyond the Beltway. So here’s an idea: how about our elected representatives drop all the typical DC cliches, and make an effort to speak like normal human beings?