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At my local recycling center, I always pause in wonderment at the bin marked "commingled containers." Whoever thought up that term could have taken the easy way out and just written "cans and bottles." But the goal apparently was to create a term that nobody would ever use in conversation, then slap it on every can-and-bottle bin in America to create maximum confusion. (The "co" is a nice raised-pinky flourish. Since "mingled" means mixed up, "commingled" means "co-mixed up.")

The gold standard in government-speak is still "ground-mounted confirmatory route markers" (road signs), a traffic-control term used from coast to coast. In Oxford, England, city officials decided to "examine the feasibility of creating a structure in Hinksey Park from indigenous vegetation." They were talking about planting a tree to get some shade. As the poet Joyce Kilmer might have put it, "Versified and rhythmic non-prose verbal structures are made by fools like me, but only God can create a solar-shielding park structure from low-rise indigenous vegetative material."

In Britain, the Plain English campaign came up with these colorful examples of awful writing: "interoperable inter-modal transport systems (bus and train schedules), and a supermarket help-wanted ad for "an ambient replenishment assistant" (someone to stock shelves). One classic award by the Plain English people went to a snack company for a letter replying to a customer who complained that her potato chips were purple. When a chip is discolored, the letter said, "it is difficult to say whether this is due to a process of active migration of the anthocyanin from the periderm and cortex or to the primary protection within the flesh of the tuber." Whatever.

When it comes to co-mangled prose, America need not take a back seat to Britain. Here is Mike McCurry, the wily White House mouthpiece, replying to a reporter's question on whether Bill Clinton's coffees were used to raise campaign funds: "Technically, [they were] not used for fund-raising, but they became an element of the financial program that we were trying to pursue in connection with the campaign."

Bill Lann Lee, rejected by the Senate but still the acting civil rights chief at the Justice Department, used similar gobbledygook in referring to forced busing. "Forced busing is a misnomer," he wrote. "School districts do not force children to ride a bus, but only to arrive on time at their assigned schools."

Political correctness plays a role, too. The scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb once asked a federal agency for up-to-date illegitimacy rates and was told that the agency preferred less judgmental terms such as "non-marital childbearing" or "alternative mode of parenting." In the athletic department at the University of Minnesota, players who steal are dismissed from their teams, not for theft, but for "violating team rules regarding personal property."

Professor William Lutz of Rutgers University, author of "The New Doublespeak," says that schools are an increasingly rich source of verbal nonsense. Students now "achieve a deficiency" (they flunk tests). They take part in "developmental studies" (remedial work) or "service learning" (compulsory volunteer work). And they don't learn to write any more -- they "generate text" out of "writing elements," "tagmemic invention," "paradigmatic analysis" and "heuristics."

On the modern campus, the word "integration" is so controversial that a Cornell University committee removed it from an official report. So instead of "promoting integration across racial, ethnic, college and class-year distinctions," the report called for "promoting meaningful interaction and connection across differences." (Good news: The president of Cornell had the wit to put the original wording back.)

The Dialectic Society gave its 1996 award for buzzword of the year to "urban camper," a new term for "the homeless," or people who live on the street. Similar euphemisms have crept into the language: "extramarital sex" (adultery), "aggressive coalitionary behavior" (war games), "hypervigilance" (paranoia) and "wall artist" (tagger, graffiti sprayer).

Gyms are now upscale, known as "wellness activities centers." In medicine, patients who die "fail to achieve their wellness potential" and have to be chalked up as "negative patient outcomes." For the U.S. government, political killings conducted by governments we detest are still known as political killings. If they happen in China, however, they are referred to smoothly as "the arbitrary deprivation of life."

Business is pumping a lot of gas into the language, too. We have "the social expression industry" (the greeting card business), "meal replacement" (fast food, junk food), "a new-car alternative" and "an experienced car" (a used car), "creative response conceptions" (damage control by public relations people) and "access controllers" (doormen).

The federal government gave us "grain-consuming animal units" (the Agriculture Department's term for cows), "single-purpose agricultural facilities (pigpens and chicken coops) and "post-consumer waste materials" (garbage). Better yet, let's make that commingled post-consumer processed units. The kind of stuff you find at a single-purpose non-recycling center, formerly a dump.


July 19, 1998

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