word of the month
with recordings by SPEECHINACTION
listening and pronunciation online
'… individual news outlets, here
and abroad, have added substantial layers to our knowledge of what the
CIA daintily calls extraordinary rendition. The term … refers to
the policy by which the United States renders unto certain friendly countries
(friendly, that is, to the practice of torture) suspected terrorists who
would otherwise be protected by the laws of more civilized societies …'
On 2nd July 2005, TV cameras across the world captured Sir Paul McCartney's performance of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band during the London opening of the famous Live8 concerts. Media reports subsequently talked about McCartney's rendition of the famous Beatles song.
The word rendition has existed in English since the 17th century, its origins in the French word rendre, meaning to 'give back'. In the 21st century however, the meaning of the noun rendition is not confined to the commonly recognised one featuring in the reports of Live8. As well as this countable sense of 'a particular performance or interpretation of a piece of music or drama', an uncountable sense is also becoming widely acknowledged, a meaning with a much 'darker' context.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in November 2001 President Bush issued a military order including the right, in defiance of national and international law, to indefinitely detain any non-US citizen anywhere in the world. Rendition was a term subsequently adopted by the US government to refer to the process of capture and extradition of suspected terrorists. Rendition, sometimes referred to as extraordinary rendition, is a highly controversial concept, mainly because it allegedly involves the extradition of suspects to countries where torture forms a legal part of interrogation procedures.
Rendition in this sense also occurs as a transitive verb, mainly used in the passive as in be/get renditioned (to somewhere). The form renditioning therefore often occurs as an alternative process noun, as in the renditioning of suspected criminals. Terrorist suspects who have been subject to renditioning are sometimes described with the attributive adjective form rendered, as in rendered suspects were detained at …, and render is sometimes also used as an alternative verb form.
So, why the choice of an established form to describe a military/political procedure which bears no relation to what we would have traditionally understood by use of the word rendition? The answer lies in the concept of euphemism, in this case the deliberate use of a particular word in order to at worst, disguise, or at best, sanitize, what will continue to be a highly controversial political issue. In the most extreme view, rendition represents a basic infringement of human rights, considered by some as a euphemism for torture-by-proxy.
The word euphemism is derived from the 16th century
The contexts of new euphemisms are diverse, varying according to the social preoccupations of any particular era. In the 18th century for instance, a typical focus of euphemistic language was the consumption of alcohol, whereas in the 21st century euphemisms centre around topics such as drugs, ethnicity, and, as in the case of rendition, politics and war.
Euphemism is a tool which is continually exploited by politicians, and there has been plenty of evidence for this in the first few years of the 21st century. A much-quoted example during media coverage of the 2003 war with Iraq was the expression regime change. Though alleged by politicians to be a neutral reference to 'a change in leadership', it quickly became associated with the idea of overthrowing a government or regime by external military force, and imposing a new government according to the interests and/or ideas promoted by that force. As a flagship policy of the Bush administration, regime change is a controversial expression thought of as a euphemism for extreme military force and associated with questionable justification for war. It has subsequently entered mainstream use as a highly charged reference to potential changes in leadership or strategy in a variety of spheres, including politics, business and sport. It was seized upon by Senator John Kerry in his unsuccessful bid for the US presidency during 2004, who called for regime change in the United States.
Other recent examples of lexical camouflage arising from delicate description of the war against terrorism include:
displaced persons problem an expression used to describe the issue of dealing with Iraqi and other nationalities of refugees
ghost prisoners (also ghost detainees) suspected terrorists held by the US Central Intelligence Agency as unregistered prisoners in secret detention centres
blue on blue an expression used to describe the accidental killing of allied forces by their own side. Another well-established term for the same concept is friendly fire.
unlawful combatant a US alternative for the term prisoner of war, used to describe suspected militants held at Guantanamo Bay.
Over in the UK, not just euphemism, but its antithesis, dysphemism ('use of a derogatory or unpleasant term as a substitute for a more neutral one') have in recent years been used in political ping-pong between the major parties. For instance, while the opposition Conservative Party has talked dysphemistically of stealth tax, (a tax increase concealed in price rises or other payments not officially classified as tax) the Labour government has chosen to refer to the same concept with the euphemistic expression indirect taxation.
Though the political arena continues to be a major source of new euphemisms, it is not the only area where language users have felt the need to coin expressions which evade or disguise the bare facts. Unemployment and job loss is one area where euphemism has been rife over many decades, with expressions like sack and lay off dating as far back as the 19th century. In the 1960s people who had lost their jobs were deselected. In the noughties a synonymous adjective, reflecting our preoccupation with the wired world, is deinstalled or uninstalled. A recently coined euphemism in the same context is RIF, an abbreviation for Reduction In Force, occurring as both a verb and a noun and referring to a financially motivated reduction in workforce. Over in the US, the transitive verb pink-slip is used as a euphemistic reference to the activity of terminating someone's employment (based on the coloured paper usually used for official letters detailing the termination of a person's job).
New euphemisms also crop up in less serious contexts. One example from the world of entertainment which first hit the headlines at the beginning of 2004 was the expression wardrobe malfunction used to refer to the situation of inadvertently exposing yourself because of some kind of problem with an item of clothing. The expression was coined by singer Justin Timberlake when he accidentally revealed part of Janet Jackson's right breast during a performance at an American football tournament. Timberlake was subsequently quoted by the media as saying:
'I am sorry that anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance of the Super Bowl … It was not intentional and is regrettable.'
Timberlake was presumably trying to disguise his embarrassment at the situation by using rather formal terminology. Media reports of the incident however seized upon the expression for humorous effect, and wardrobe malfunction quickly gained currency during 2004 as a euphemism which filled the lexical gap in English for a description of comical 'exposure' incidents.
Euphemism will always be a feature of everyday language. English-speaking society is continually trying to avoid giving descriptions which might sound offensive or betray the grim reality of a situation. Euphemism distracts the hearer from potential conflict or offence by making something sound acceptable, often disguising the speaker's true feelings. Some recent examples plucked from everyday English include:
1 words used to criticize
people in a socially acceptable way, e.g.: showflake
a chronically unreliable person who doesn't turn up for appointments
2 expressions which use humour as a cover for general disapproval, e.g.: Chelsea tractor a large, four-wheel drive vehicle such as a Land Rover™ which is driven in towns and cities for ordinary domestic purposes, e.g.: She drops the kids off at school in her Chelsea tractor (4 x 4 that has never left the road) and then goes shopping …
3 expressions which disguise
some kind of dishonest enterprise, e.g.: Xerox
subsidy the use of work photocopying facilities for personal photocopies
For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.