Date: Sun, 25 Jan 1998 09:41:38 -0500

From: "Bethany K. Dumas" dumasb[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]UTK.EDU

Subject: "legal jargon" the "ultimate dialect of scandal"? (Sheidlower &


The extract below is quoted from today's web edition of the Washington

Post; the story is found at:

Political Troublespeak: With Each Scandal, a New Lingo

By Elizabeth Kastor

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, January 25, 1998; Page A22

Remember back in the distant past -- say, Tuesday --

when it was hard to work the phrase "suborning perjury"

into casual conversation?

No more. Scandal has once again infected the city, and

with it comes that peculiar local dialect, the

ritualized vocabulary of political frenzy.

There are instantly ubiquitous catch phrases: "No

improper relationship" has become the "no controlling

legal authority" of 1998.

There are the incantations: White House press secretary

Mike McCurry's "I'm not going to parse the statement."

President Clinton's "I am going to cooperate with the


Public speech becomes simultaneously overblown and

over-lawyered. Who knew there were so many, many ways to

say "I'm not going to say anything"?

"It is very formulaic," says lawyer Leonard Garment, who

knows from scandal as a onetime Nixon aide.

"The language becomes very muddy, foggy," he says.

"Everybody says the same things, or they say what are

generically the same things. The denials -- 'We don't

know. We're investigating. It's untrue. It's not a

problem. I'm not having sex with her' -- in the present

tense, past tense, the pluperfect. It's very confusing


But then, in this dreary gray landscape, colorful

language explodes.

"I smell a rat in this," said Clinton lawyer Robert

Bennett, with ominous inferences and literary gravity.

Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, offered up

melodramatic imagery with an undertone of sexual

assault: "If the president of the United States did this

-- and I'm not saying that he did -- with this young

lady, I think he's a misogynist. If he didn't, then I

think Ken Starr and his crew have ravaged the life of a


And with each new scandal comes the sudden intimacy of

first names. Fawn. Donna. Gennifer. Paula. And now


Mistakes were made.

For those accused, scandal-speak takes no blame, admits

to nothing. The passive voice is popular: Nothing wrong

was done by anyone in particular, something just sort of

happened. "Incident" serves nicely too. How appalling

can something be if it's only an incident?

"One of my obsessions is 'the appearance of

impropriety,' " says Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate.

"It's the cop-out from both directions. Someone who is

guilty can say, 'I'm sorry for creating the appearance

of impropriety.' He apologized without admitting


Words spoken in times like these have literal meanings,

of course, but they also give off vibrations.

"There's a need on either side to get the right

associations," says Jesse Sheidlower, project director

of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American

Slang. "That might mean using language that has a moral

or legal significance, or language that makes light of

these things."

So independent counsel Kenneth Starr relies on the

hallowed standards of American justice: "I have a very

strong belief in facts and in truth," he said at a news

conference Thursday, "and that the facts will come out

and the truth will come out -- eventually -- consistent

with the presumption of innocence."

And Clinton adopts a phrase that echoes with nearly

Victorian propriety: He did not, he has said repeatedly,

have an "improper relationship" with Lewinsky.

But sometimes the associations are unintentionally

eerie. According to reports, Lewinsky referred to

Clinton as the "creep." The last time that word floated

through a scandal was back in the '70s and it was an

acronym, standing darkly for the Committee to Re-Elect

the President -- Richard Nixon.

There was no controlling legal authority that says this

was in violation of the law.

-- Al Gore, repeatedly, during a March 1997 news


So soothing, so precise, so impenetrable -- legal jargon

is the ultimate dialect of scandal.

"Lawyers have power," says Roger Shuy, a linguistics

professor at Georgetown University and author of "The

Language of Confession, Interrogation and Deception."

"Their language is impressive. . . . People will say,

'They know! They say things like 'aid and abet' and

'heretofore' and 'hereinafter.' "

[the rest of the story is deleted]