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February 18th, 2020 (Permalink)

The Euphemism Treadmill

People invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations, and so on. … The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people's minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long.1

Here's another attempt to use word magic to make a problem disappear:

The term "at-risk youth" was commonly used in both penal and education codes in California―until now. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that went into effect on Jan. 1 that officially wiped the phrase from the state's language. The phrase will now be replaced by "at-promise youth."2

Ten years ago there was an attempt in Washington state to replace the phrase "at risk" with the meaningless one "at hope"3. "At promise", like "at hope", is barely meaningful, simply replacing a "negative" noun―"risk"―with a "positive" one, without bothering to change the preposition. If you want to refer to a youth who shows promise, you can call him or her a "promising youth", which is already well-established English usage. To say that we regard a youth with hope is more difficult, since to call him or her "hopeful" would be ambiguous: is it we or the youth who hopes?

Here's the supposed rationale for the change:

Assemblymember Byron Jones-Sawyer (D-South Los Angeles), who penned the passed legislation, says the measure will change the negative connotation that comes along with the "at-risk" label. "I learned that words matter―and once they were called 'at-risk,' they almost were in the school-to-prison pipeline automatically," Jones-Sawyer said. Jones-Sawyer says the negative narrative has the greatest effect on young people who are a part of minority populations.2

Jones-Sawyer may be getting the effect cart before the causal horse: isn't it more plausible that the reason these young people were called "at risk" is because they were already "in the school-to-prison pipeline"? Wasn't the purpose of the label to make it possible to identify such children so that steps could be taken to help them? Of course, it's easier to just change the words to hide the problem than to actually do anything substantive to help "minority populations".

The article supplies the following anecdote:

Battling expectations is something Alejandro Galicia Cervantes is all too familiar with. … Cervantes says he's proud of his family, but he knew he wanted a different life to break the cycle―though he says quickly it became clear the road would be difficult. "I joined different programs and that's where the label started to be used," Cervantes said. He was in high school the first time he was referred to as "at-risk." "It just felt like, damn, I'm like really at-risk? That's the path I'm heading towards? It felt like there was no empowerment in it." So Cervantes took the power into his own hands, joining youth programs like "Improv [sic] Your Tomorrow" that helped him get to college. But he knows he's one of the lucky ones.2

It sounds as though Cervantes was actually motivated by being deemed "at risk" to take "the power into his own hands". Why does he think he was "one of the lucky ones"; didn't he make his own luck? If he had been told that he was "at hope" or "at promise", would he have taken the hard road he took or the easy one? I suppose that Cervantes might have felt better if the state of California had reassured him that he was the hope and promise of the future, but would he have joined the youth programs and gone to college? It seems that the label "at risk" worked exactly the way it should in Cervantes' case, so why is it presented in the article as an argument for the language change?

If this change doesn't die a quiet death as the "at hope" one did4, then a decade or two from now California will have to replace "at promise" with a new euphemism. Legislators such as Jones-Sawyer will keep treading on that euphemism treadmill and getting nowhere, but whoever said that they were supposed to get anywhere? Why do anything about real problems when you can just change the words you use for them?


  1. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), pp. 212-213.
  2. Laura Haefeli, "Term 'At-Risk Youth' Replaced With 'At-Promise Youth' In California Penal Codes", CBS Sacramento, 2/13/2020. For some reason, the article includes the following piece of trivia: "In California, there are 650 young people in operated juvenile centers―with 87 percent being black or Latino, according to the Division of Juvenile Justice [DJJ]." 650 sounds like an extremely low number for the entire state, but the DJJ only incarcerates the worst youth offenders. According to its website:
    The Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) provides education and treatment to California’s youthful offenders up to the age of 25 who have the most serious criminal backgrounds and most intense treatment needs. Most juvenile offenders today are committed to county facilities in their home communities where they can be closer to their families and local social services that are vital to rehabilitation. As a result, DJJ's population represents less than one percent of the 225,000 youths arrested in California each year. This population has committed serious and/or violent felonies and requires intensive treatment services conducted in a structured and secure environment.

    How this relates to the rest of the article is a mystery to me; see: "Division of Juvenile Justice", California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, accessed: 2/17/2020.

  3. See: Doublespeak Dictionary, 1/14/2010.
  4. "'At hope' bill dies in Washington state committee", The Columbian, 2/6/2010.

Cold Warriors
February 13th, 2019 (Permalink)

Cold Warriors

Title: Cold Warriors

Subtitle: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War

Author: Duncan White

Date: 2019

Quote: Cold Warriors is the story of the writers who dealt with the consequences of having literature become a Cold War battleground. In the United States, depending on your politics, you could find your voice silenced, or it could be amplified in publications all around the world. In the Soviet Union, if your work was considered ideologically orthodox, you could find yourself a national hero, published by the millions, with a dacha in the countryside and a cushy lifestyle. However, if you deviated, or dissented, you could find your books disappearing from libraries, your name excised from encyclopedias, and end up yourself in the labor camps or executed by the secret police in the basement of the Lubyanka prison.1

Comment: Like last month's New Book, Duncan White's Cold Warriors may not be the sort of thing you'd expect to see here. This is a history of a particular aspect of the Cold War, which ran roughly from the end of World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Its focus is not just the narrow one of propaganda, but the even narrower one of the role of novelists, poets, and their literary works in the propaganda war. Because the Cold War was "cold"―that is, it wasn't a "hot" shooting war, though there was some shooting involved―it was conducted at a more intellectual level than most wars, and propaganda played a big part.

I'm interested in political propaganda, and also a big admirer of the English writer George Orwell, who appears to play a substantial role in the book. The book is divided into eight parts, the first of which deals the Orwell's experiences in the Spanish civil war in 1937, along with those of his fellow writers Arthur Koestler and Stephen Spender. In addition to Orwell, Koestler, and Spender, the book also has chapters on Graham Greene, Václav Havel, Ernest Hemingway, John le Carré, Mary McCarthy, Boris Pasternak, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

As you can see, despite its title, the book does not limit itself strictly to the Cold War period, but begins in the 1930s with the civil war in Spain and the Moscow show trials in Part 2. Part 3 covers World War II, and it's only in Parts 4 through 8 that the Cold War proper is discussed.

The author, Duncan White, is an academic and journalist who has written one previous book, which was about Vladimir Nabokov. While the writing that I've read so far is not quite John le Carré, let alone Ian Fleming2, it reads more like an elaborate spy novel than an academic history book. In fact, a few of the writers discussed were themselves spies at one time or another, including Koestler, Greene, and Le Carré. Here's a short excerpt dealing with Koestler's imprisonment by Franco's Falangists during the Spanish civil war to give you a taste of the lively style:

Koestler spent four traumatic days in Malaga prison. Every moment he feared he was to be executed, but if his captors discovered that he was a Comintern agent, he would be tortured first. He tried to distract himself by scratching mathematical formulae on the wall and making plans to learn a new language, but the sound of screams followed by shots followed by silence swiftly eroded his resolve. He stopped eating and drinking, crumbling bread down the toilet and pouring away his coffee, hoping that he would thereby faint more quickly if tortured. He soon came up with a more radical plan: suicide. He planned to hang himself with his tie, but the only hook in the room was too low to the ground. He discovered a shard of glass in the window and resolved to slit his wrists instead. No longer worried about torture, he ate corned beef and bread and sought comfort in a straw mattress that had been brought to his cell. That night, the guards threw another man into his prison. Koestler knew something was gravely wrong with his new blood-drenched cellmate but could not put his finger on it. He eventually realized that his jaw was dislocated from its socket. He could not speak or eat. Shortly before he was taken out and shot, the man gave Koestler his last two cigarette stumps. Faced with the man's suffering and overcome by a wave of apathy, Koestler abandoned his plan to kill himself.3

I must warn anyone thinking about reading this book that it is very long: almost seven-hundred pages of text. However, I've enjoyed the small portion I've read so far, and look forward to the remainder. I haven't noticed any historical errors, and the sample is well edited4―something that can't always be counted on these days.


  1. Duncan White, Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War (2019), pp. 10-11. All subsequent page citations are to this book.
  2. Though Nikolai Yeshov, nicknamed "the bloodthirsty dwarf", could easily be a villain from a James Bond novel; see, esp.: pp. 107, 111 & 133-137.
  3. Pp. 66-67. Perhaps ironically, Koestler died by his own hand many years later; see: "Arthur Koestler", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 2/13/2020.
  4. I've noticed only one typographical error―p. 68, the word "a" is missing―and a single grammatical one―p. 3, the last full sentence on the page.

Debate Watch
February 4th, 2020 (Permalink)

And Then There Were Seven, Again

A couple of debate-related news items:

  1. Believe it or not, there are three forums for Democratic candidates scheduled for this month, including one this coming Friday, which takes place in New Hampshire a few days before the state primary. Also, believe it or not, this one will include seven candidates, up from six in the last forum, together with three moderators1.

    This, of course, is going in the wrong direction. All seven of the currently scheduled candidates have been in previous so-called debates, so what are they going to say in this one that they haven't said before? For this reason, I may skip it, unless something unusually interesting happens.

  2. All of these so-called debates of Democratic candidates have so far been run by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which sets the rules of entry. Now, it's changing the entry rules to eliminate the fund-raising requirement, which required candidates to have raised a certain amount of money from individual donors in several states in order to participate in the forums2.

    This may make it possible for Michael Bloomberg who, like Trump, is a billionaire funding his own campaign for president, to participate in the forums. Apparently, Bloomberg has vowed not to accept any donations, so he couldn't do what many of the other candidates did, namely, spend a lot of money on fund-raisers to generate sufficient contributions in enough states to qualify3. However, the new rules don't go into force until the second of this month's events, so Bloomberg won't appear this Friday.

    Thankfully, dropping the fund-raising requirement is not the only change the DNC is making to the rules. In addition, the polling threshold will be raised to 10% in at least four polls, which should eliminate some of the lesser candidates. In fact, it may even keep Bloomberg out, who has so far failed to meet the new requirement. Currently, only Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren have qualified under the new rules.

    I, for one, would be pleased to see a three candidate forum, which might even occasionally resemble a real debate. Not only that, but I assume that even the DNC and the news media would be embarrassed to have more moderators on stage than candidates, which should should get the number of moderators down to three or less. So, while I will probably skip this Friday's event, I may pay attention to the one after that.


  1. Nate Ashworth, "Andrew Yang Makes New Hampshire Primary Debate Bringing Stage to Seven", Election Central, 1/27/2020.
  2. Zach Montellaro, Sally Goldenberg & Christopher Cadelago, "DNC overhauls debate requirements, opening door for Bloomberg", Politico, 1/31/2020.
  3. See the update to the following entry for a discussion of this requirement: Wake up, Marianne!, 8/16/2019.

February 2nd, 2020 (Permalink)

Who Killed Whom?

Three people, known only by their initials A, B, and C, met one day at a remote cabin. Each arrived at a different time, and only two left the cabin alive. It was not suicide; the one who was left behind was murdered by one of the other two visitors.

There were only four clues:

  1. The victim was not the last person to arrive at the cabin.
  2. Whichever of A and C arrived at the cabin later was not the killer.
  3. The murderer was not the first person to arrive at the cabin.
  4. Whichever of B and C arrived at the cabin earliest was not the victim.

Who was the victim and who the murderer?

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