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Keith Jarrett

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Livingstone's Loaded Language

Posted: 10/02/2012 11:04

The language we choose seems to hold more weight than our actual ideas and values.

So yesterday, Ken Livingstone, running for London Mayor again, says of closet gay MPs:

"You just knew the Tory party was riddled with it, like everywhere else is." Put in context, he was comparing the Labour Party's - and his own - record of tolerance with regard to sexuality to the historic hypocrisy of the Right. Without even having to list some of the obvious examples (but, for the record, see Section 28, age of consent, civil partnerships, and more... ) no one could, or can, disagree but for the word "riddled".

There are talks of these comments creating a "media storm", and of an "outrage" at this "gaffe". People are polarised with Peter Tatchell leaping to his defence and others baying for blood - or at least an apology. And while the temperatures are plummeting outside, there are heated exchanges on Twitter/Face. All over a tiny little "riddling".

Compare one emotive word with a whole sentence, devoid of such decorations, that compares gay marriage to bestiality. Said in jest or otherwise, the current Mayor's pre-election "gaffe" created fewer ripples and were largely forgiven, if not forgotten, in time for him to take the job. Ok, so maybe it helps if you don't have so many enemies, like Ken does, and if most of your friends (and colleagues) are in the media, but I'd like to believe there's something deeper to this.

It must have been a decade ago when David Blunkett said something about schools being "swamped" by asylum seekers, and got into a lot of trouble. Try Googling the words "swamp" and "immigration" now and you can see why. Reactionary words like "swamping", "spiralling", "invading" and "crisis" have a long history of creating and heightening scandal. And yet there are more subtly emotive words which have a way of seeping into our consciousness and lingering long after those who use it have gone.

Remember, for instance, the riots last year? The PM called for "robust" policing and MPs called for "robust" sentencing; the word filtered quickly through all the news machines, who adopted it as a theme, yet few people asked: what does it mean? Because, while one man's robust is another's extreme, the sentiment - and the use of a strong, solid word for a worrying situation - was enough to appease.

My all time favourites are the words that get used as political slogans once every four or five years. Obama's "Change We Can Believe In" could have been adopted by any of the three major parties in Britain - and probably by most political parties across the world - regardless of what the party actually stands for. Then there's "progress" - are you not for progress? And "justice", which stands alongside "robust" as a meaty number to roll in during the chaos of a crisis. And then - a favourite of the New Conservatives - "society", which apparently didn't exist a couple of decades ago.

All of these deliberate, carefully chosen words are no different to Ken's unfortunate "riddled": substitute them for something else and you lose nothing of the overriding sentiment; however, there's an off-note, a subtext, a hint of something else that catches you. "Riddled" conjures up disease and dis-ease, whereas the others are unclear but clean: "change" sounds like "better" when it only means "different" and could even mean "worse" (but, handily, it still means what you keep in your purse). And then "justice", which is grand but relative, so readily asked for but rarely wanted.

...Oh the riddles with which we wrangle our words!