we have managed to transfer religious belief into gullibility for whatever can masquerade as science.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb


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With Reverse English

By John Mauer

Reverse English is a billards shot whereby side spin is imparted to the cue ball to cause to carom off a cushion in a slightly backward direction. However, it is also the misuse of words to cause their meaning to be the opposite of the normally intended meaning. Part of reading the news is the discovery that some politicians use the side spin of reverse English to harpoon their opponents. (What, you’ve never called a cue stick a harpoon?)

Statement: My opponent needs to act like an adult. Translation: My opponent needs to act like a child so I can bully him.

Statement: The administrative leader of this organization makes too much money. Translation: The employees of this organization make too much money, and I’m trying to deflect attention from that fact.

Statement: With this action, we are saving a lot of money. Translation: We are already spending a lot more, so reducing it a bit doesn’t hurt.

If you can read the news with this sort of filter, the actions of politicians, and the press, become much more understandable. In fact, reverse English can’t be used without the complicity of the press. Always, when reading the news, ask yourself what the reporter has left out. Invariably that’s how story bias is built in. How often does a reporter question the integrity of a statement by presenting conflicting facts? How often does a reporter question the integrity of statements at all? Accurate translation of such statements requires awareness that such translation is necessary.

Statement: My opponent is racist. Translation: I’m bigoted so my opponent must be.

Frequently, politicians will ascribe a negative trait to an opponent that they themselves possess. In essence, they know the trait so well that they see it in others as a reflection. They are presenting a mirror image of themselves.

How can anyone arrive at this translation accurately? Sometimes previous actions of the speaker can be used, but usually the only approach is to look at which person has the most to gain from such purposeful distortion. For instance, racism can be an integral part of affirmative action. Someone who has benefited from affirmative action can hardly use, or have others use in support, a reciprocal reference to racism. The translation is obvious at that point.

This type of reverse English isn’t limited to racism. Such statements can include references to corruption, infidelity, political partisanship, and a host of other traits. Be wary of such characterizations without documented evidence.

Statement: My opponent’s legislative ideas would harm [whoever]. Translation: My own legislation already harms [whoever], and I’m trying to deflect attention from that fact.

This reverse English is used so frequently that news stories that contain it should come with a legal warning about brainwashing: “Statements in this story may harm your mental acuity.” If you see this type of statement, expect to see it repeated often. Repetition, provided by the complicit press, supplies the controlled indoctrination or, at the very least, confusion necessary to your attitude adjustment.

In this type of statement, the only way to arrive at an accurate translation is to actually read the original legislation and collect any data available. Of course, the press should be trusted to do this for you, but experience has shown that such detailed analysis is beyond them. For instance, the current federal healthcare law contains explicit language which allows rationing and denial of service for Medicare recipients, so expect any proposed changes to that law to be denigrated accordingly.

Statement: We should invest in education. Translation: We should support the jobs and high compensation for teachers.

This is one of the most blatant forms of reverse English because it seems to offer something we want, better education. However, it is frequently used to maintain the status quo, or even worse, featherbed the educational organizations. More compensation for teachers has never led to better education; look at the data on educational standards for our states compared to student costs. The level of educational expectations is totally uncorrelated to cost.

And, again, this type of reverse English is not limited to education, but is also used to refer to any government project such as construction or maintenance of public works. If we change the verb, invest, to bailout, it was even used to describe the blatant theft of General Motors from the stock and bond holders. Unions are frequently the recipients of such largess, but, on local levels, developers may also step up to the trough.

Apparently, there is no cure for reverse English; such speakers will always put side spin on their statements. Frequently, political groups will script a reverse English response, so that multiple sources will say the same thing. Beware such scripted politicians. Look instead for the spontaneous responses.

Frequently, the unexpected question is the only way to overcome reverse English. That’s why some politicians require all questions be submitted in advance.

We should invest in our politicians.


1 comment to With Reverse English

  • Ken Johnson

    You have an interesting concept of how an statement can be construed either by the speaker or the interpreter. I would call this taking a statement “out of context”. This is done, as you say, by politicians and reporters alike. We all do it. Conversation and understanding can have nebulous interpretations because of this complexity. I believe it is up to us, the writers and the speakers, to present their communications in such a way to be clear and honest. Maybe those who are able to do this have a gift.

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