Potholes in the path of public discourse

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Clarity and simplicity are such important values in the public discourse that a journalist must be always alert for blather, obfuscation, or new words introduced to camouflage bad deeds.

Forgive me if I state the obvious. Or sound hopelessly idealistic.

The Bible records the Lord urging the prophet Habakkuk, "Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it." At least one commentary I've consulted on this passage left me with a mental image of robed figures (in running sandals?) jogging through the desert past a series of billboards with the prophetic message in ALL CAPS. But I think that may not be quite what the writer – or the Lord, for that matter – had in mind.

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Rather, the idea is that a writer's words should be clear and smooth enough that the reader's eyes should be able to run over the page (table). Euphemism and obfuscation are like potholes or tree roots in a runner's path.

In his essay in the current National Geographic on the world's national parks under threat, David Quammen has alerted me to a significant new pothole in the path of public discourse: the term "de-gazetting." It refers to the process by which a park is "disestablished," so to speak, or "de-listed" – downgraded to a lesser level of protection. It happened to the Amboseli National Park in Kenya last year.

De-gazetting, Quammen writes, is "a word with which we should all acquaint ourselves; it's a word, unfortunately, of the future. How so? Because other efforts to de-gazette national parks are likely to arise soon, as we citizens of various countries find our short-term appetites more compelling than our long-term ideals."

And where does this curious word come from? From "gazette" in the sense of "official journal," roughly analogous to the Congressional Record in the United States. In the case of the Amboseli National Park, the minister of wildlife and tourism announced that it would be downgraded to a national reserve and control of it returned to the Masai people, its original owners.

This change was effected without any consultation by way of a published notice in the Kenya Gazette. "De-gazetting" made me think of "deaccessioning," which is how museums refer to "selling" or perhaps "unloading" the less significant works in their collections, or those less clearly related to their mission.

"Deaccessioning" popped onto the public radar during the tenure (1967-1977) of Thomas Hoving as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The American Association of Museums has lots to say about "deaccessioning" and why it's often the best way to deal with a particular object. But it's a controversial concept – as reflected even in the example sentence offered by an online dictionary:

"He also denied that ... friends of the museum were permitted to buy ... pieces that were deaccessioned (The New York Times)."

But back to "gazette": It has been used in English to mean a newspaper since 1605. It goes back to a bit of Venetian dialect – gazeta, meaning originally a small copper coin and, by the mid-1500s, the government newspaper this little coin could buy. The coin itself was literally a "little magpie" (gazza, plus a diminutive ending).

Lexicographers seem uncertain whether "gazette" as a name for a publication derives strictly from the coin or perhaps reflects an association with magpies and "false chatter."

Whatever, "gazette" lives on both in the names of official publications, such as the Kenya Gazette, and a range of ordinary independent newspapers – two honorable strains of public discourse through which the reader should be able to "run."

I don't like to see the word morphed into a term for official subterfuge, or government management by stealth. And I don't think the magpies would approve either.

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

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