Robert Fisk’s World: If you think we can ignore these linguistic crimes, think again

by Robert Fisk

The Independent

My favourite is 'any', as in 'any passengers who may have been inconvenienced'

Still scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr Gibbon? Or so the king is said to have enraged the odiferous man who described the rise and fall of the Roman hegemon. Yes, I use this word advisedly since we are at the mercy of those who will misuse language for their own advantage or because laptops have made them sloppy or because they think it chic to befuddle us with psycho-crap. For the latter, I draw your attention to a new publisher – Corvus – whose "publishing director", one Nicolas Cheetham, was stupid enough to send me his "launch catalogue" the other day.

Corvus, he informs me, is the Latin for raven. No problem there. But then he goes on: "Our books are diverse in setting, tone and genre ... Corvus takes a particular delight in patrolling those fertile zones of convergence at genre borders, where the best stories are to be found..." Ye gods, where do people like young Cheetham – for young he must be to write such twaddle – come from? "Patrolling ... fertile zones of convergence at genre borders" simply means nothing on this earth.

But it is intended to impress, isn't it? To make us believe that Master Cheetham is clever, nuanced, even – heaven spare us – literate. It is meant to make us believe that he is a Deep Thinker, that Corvus is appealing to the super-educated, those who "push the envelope", who talk the non-language of BBC management and New Labour; it was, after all, not surprising that the BBC's top crap-talk specialist ended up working for Tony Blair.

Then there's what I call the give-away word – the one word in a sentence that reveals the unwillingness of the writer or speaker to own up to a fault. My favourite just now is "any". As in British Airways' apology to "any passengers who may have been inconvenienced" by having their baggage lost at Terminal 5. The key word is "any". After tens of thousands of passengers did actually lose their checked-in baggage, BA simply referred to "any" passengers – in other words, that there might be one or two or perhaps none at all.

An identical linguistic swindle was perpetrated by yet another airline a few weeks ago when easyJet's in-flight magazine depicted models posing in Berlin's Jewish Holocaust memorial. The text of the article actually refers to Berlin's "turbulent past" – a weasel way of covering up the evils of Nazism – but what caught my eye was the airline's admission that "easyJet profusely apologises to anyone who may be offended by the inappropriate (sic) fashion shoot...". Anyone? I say it again: ANYONE? Jewish groups and even passengers en route to Tel Aviv were very much offended. And rightly so. Yet it's the old cowardly "any" passengers once more. If they don't know of any passengers – which of course they do – why did easyJet apologise in the first place? Similarly, the publishing house which produced this nauseous article regretted "any offence caused". Do they really believe that the "offence" might not exist? That it was all made up?

And so I move on to the phrase which is now becoming a cliché: anti-Semitism. It is not a cliché – it was certainly never intended to be – but those who use this phrase to assault any decent person who dares to criticise Israel are turning it into one. They are making anti-Semitism respectable – and shame upon them for it.

The latest idiot to assist the anti-Semites is Labour MP Denis MacShane who last month condemned Channel 4's Dispatches programme on Britain's Israel lobby with the words: "anti-Semitic politics is back". I should perhaps add that this is the same man who, as Minister for Europe, defended Blair's criminal intention to go to war in Iraq with the admonition to fellow European politicians that sometimes people were in need of "a guide". He had obviously forgotten that the German for "guide" is Führer.

But while we're on the subject of Holocausts, let's turn to the unmentionable one, the Armenian Holocaust – yes, also a capital "H" – which our Foreign Office still claims to believe doesn't qualify as a genocide. A million and a half Armenian Christians were murdered or sent on death marches in 1915 by the Muslim Ottoman Turks, but the British Government doesn't want to upset the present-day Turks.

Denis MacShane, to his great credit, has long demanded an independent international commission to inquire into the massacres. Documents unearthed by Geoffrey Robertson QC under the Freedom of Information Act, however, show not only the hypocrisy and cynicism of the Foreign Office – cutting Armenians out of Holocaust Memorial Day and denying that there is "unequivocal evidence" of genocide (which of course there is), but admitting that "HMG is open to criticism in terms of the ethical question (sic)" in denying the Armenian Holocaust but should do so "given the importance of our relations (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey...".

For the correspondence between "researcher analysts", "draftpersons" and ministers also betrays what I believe is a growing and hateful practice: sloppy grammar and spelling in emails. For some reason, we would never accept such a practice in a typewritten note. But here's a classic example of a letter to a minister which includes not only political dishonesty but also an inability even to reread and correct a printed communication.

The note, dated 21 January last year, refers to the Foreign Office's habit of dredging up three of Turkey's favourite historians – who, needless, to say, deny the Armenian Holocaust – and of the public's demand for a full list of historians consulted by the FO's "researchers". I leave it to readers to groan at the inadequacy of the text, let alone the mistakes of FO "draftsperson" Sofka Brown:

"We've had a response (which has taken its time getting round to u)s which very specifically requests a detailed list of all the evidence looked at wich leads us to believe that the evidence is not sufficiently unequivocal. We do not propose to provide a list is reply..." The misplaced closing of brackets, the mis-spelling of "which" (as "wich") and "in" (as "is") would be regarded as poor English at an average school. But what are we to make of it when it's contained in a Foreign Office note to a minister?

I guess HMG's civil servant was just patrolling fertile zones of convergence at genre borders between Armenia and Turkey. I apologise for "any" offence caused to Sofka Brown.

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