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
"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
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]