Fog in the harbor of discourse

'Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes," Henry David Thoreau is widely reported to have said. Beware of government policies that require new words, I would add.

That may be a bit adamant. But my antennae go up whenever government officials introduce a polysyllabic Latin-derived term to describe a new policy or sanitize an old one. Many of my favorite words come from Latin. But using long words whose meanings are less than instantly clear can be an effective way to fog in the harbor of public discourse.

Remember when "rendition" was what one gave of a song, for instance? "She blew them all away with her rendition of 'Over the Rainbow.' "

Now we're hearing about "extraordinary rendition," which is the Bush administration's preferred term for kidnapping suspected terrorists in foreign countries, and then transporting them to other countries where they remain under the control of US officials but lack the legal protections they would have on US soil.

Salman Rushdie recently wrote, "Beyond any shadow of a doubt, the ugliest phrase to enter the English language in 2005 was 'extraordinary rendition.' "

An interim report released last week by the Council of Europe reported more than 100 cases of such renditions. Although it found no clear evidence of a network of secret detention centers being run with the acquiescence of European governments, as has been alleged, it did say that the situation warrants further investigation.

"Rendition" is a noun from the verb "to render," which derives from Latin, meaning "to give back." The "performance" sense of rendition is a relatively new usage, originally an Americanism. Presumably the underlying metaphor or image is of "delivery" in a sense, as we speak of "delivering" a speech. Earlier meanings had to do with "surrender," as of a fort or garrison, or of a person. The Oxford English Dictionary cites an example from the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1860: "the rendition of fugitive slaves by the Northern States." Not anyone's finest hour, that.

Remember how the phrase "ethnic cleansing" first entered the public conversation a dozen or so years ago? It seemed like a ghastly irony at first - how can anyone miss the point that one "cleanses" something of dirt or a stain; and how can an entire people be dismissed as a stain? And then somehow "ethnic cleansing" simply became the term for what earlier generations called genocide, or mass murder.

Maybe we should more forthrightly use the term "kidnapping." This is a standard usage whose colloquial roots are all too evident. The word comes from "kid" as in "child," and "nab" as in seize, arrest, etc. "The cops nabbed 'em as they were making their getaway." The first kidnappers were looking to steal children as servants or farm laborers, but the term has long since been applied to abductions of adults.

If "kidnap" is just too uncomfortably vivid and Anglo-Saxon, maybe that's a sign that it's exactly the right word.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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