Date: Sun, 25 Jan 1998 09:41:38 -0500 From: "Bethany K. Dumas" Subject: "legal jargon" the "ultimate dialect of scandal"? (Sheidlower & Shuyquoted) 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 investigation." 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 language." 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 youngster." And with each new scandal comes the sudden intimacy of first names. Fawn. Donna. Gennifer. Paula. And now Monica. 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 anything." 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 conference 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] Bethany