I don’t think I will ever tire of the creative ways in which politicians exploit words and language. The war ("situation", "conflict", "military intervention", "freedom operation") in Iraq has provided many opportunities to witness them struggle with the simplest of words. Like torture.
Donald Rumsfeld: "I think that — I’m not a lawyer. My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture. I don’t know if it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there’s been a conviction for torture. And therefore I’m not going to address the torture word."
This article in the New York Times addresses the issue very well. Here is an extract of it:

"Words alter, words add, words subtract. It was the strenuous avoidance of the word ”genocide” while some 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda were being slaughtered, over a few weeks’ time, by their Hutu neighbors 10 years ago that indicated the American government had no intention of doing anything. To refuse to call what took place in Abu Ghraib — and what has taken place elsewhere in Iraq and in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay — by its true name, torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the Rwandan genocide a genocide.
Whatever actions this administration undertakes to limit the damage of the widening revelations of the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere (…), it is probable that the ”torture” word will continue to be banned. To acknowledge that Americans torture their prisoners would contradict everything this administration has invited the public to believe about the virtue of American intentions and America’s right, flowing from that virtue, to undertake unilateral action on the world stage."

I think various governments have strenuously avoided the word torture because it belongs to a similar category as evil (discussed earlier). Besides its legal definition, which is very clear, it is a very emotive word, which appeals to the imaginary and conjures a vision of (supposedly) darker times, when people were left to rot in gaols. So of course, nobody wants to be associated with this kind of word.
I find it fascinating that however powerful the images are, however obvious the evidence, as long as a certain word hasn’t been applied to a situation, that situation can be denied its reality. This shows how powerful words are, as George Orwell showed in 1984 when Newspeak (a dumbed-down version of language) was an integral part of the government’s strategy to control the population. If there isn’t a word to describe a situation, this situation doesn’t exist.
Please note that this post isn’t intended as anti-American. It just so happens that at the time that I’m writing this blog, the USA are involved in a war that has led to interesting developments from a language point of view. Replace "Americans" with "French" and "Iraqis" with "Algerians" and this could have been written in the 1950s. The manipulation of words in this way is nothing new and, I suspect, isn’t going to change any time soon.

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:59+00:00 May 24th, 2004|Words|4 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Rick May 25, 2004 at 1:17 am

    Torture happens, you’d be naive to think that it does not happen. Most of the incidences of torture are as wrong and evil as can be. However, I do believe that there are times when the extraction of information is necessary and needed to save the life of an innocent victim. I think I’m speaking more of psychological torture than physical.
    I look at it this way, the bad guy would not be in the situation that he’s in if he were not the bad guy, so he deserves whatever happens. I guess the problem about this approach would be knowing if the suspect in question is actually the perpetrator of the crime. If the suffering of one (guilty) person saves another person is that suffering merited…what if it were 100, or 1,000? At what point would the good of society outweigh the suffering of the guilty?

  2. Caroline May 25, 2004 at 2:36 am

    I think we can all agree that torture happens; it’s just ridiculous and embarrasing that Rumsfeld will not call a spade a spade. I guess a decrease in public support for a war based on deception will do that to you.
    This is not a political blog, but I have to address Rick’s argument for torture. The crux of this argumment depends on perspective. What is the “good of society”? Is it just American society? Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy? This particular argument believes that Americans are the good guys, fair enough. However if the tables were turned and Iraqis were torturing American soldiers for the betterment of Iraqi society (e.g. Iraqis torturing US soldiers to end the American occupation), I seriously doubt you’d be condoning their actions. Bottom line: If one doesn’t approve of US soldiers being tortured to extract information, then one shouldn’t approve of the US military employing the same tactics.

  3. Jez May 25, 2004 at 10:00 am

    AAAAAAARRRGGHH! Not a political blog, so I’m not going to start a flame war with Rick, but….AAAARRRRRGGHHH!
    *rips out hair in frustration with right-wing warmongerers*

  4. Rick May 26, 2004 at 6:40 am

    If you want to have a flame war(?) you could do it over at my blog. It’s whatever I want it to be. Even so, I know I’m right about America (and the British) being the good guys…and if you didn’t notice the Iraqis…must stop now…getting too political…grrr…
    By the way, simply because I believe that this was a just war (freeing the opressed) does not make me a warmonger. I actually hope that the Iraqis can get situated into power so everyone can come home.

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