Stolen words

Many professions borrow familiar words to use as technical or semi-technical terms and it can be useful for all concerned, both professionals and interested outsiders. However, there is also a powerful element of deception too. Bad ideas often acquire credence from familiar words as propagandists know too well. Consider three words and two phrases.

 Junk food.

A beef-burger is a highly nutritious meal, containing an abundance of protein, fats and carbohydrates together with many micronutrients such as calcium, iron and magnesium. However, dietary faddists often classify beef-burgers as junk food, a term which combines two familiar words into a pejorative dietary term.

Yet junk food is surely an oxymoron because many foods so described are more nourishing than for example lettuce, which has its own health problems.

Lettuce has often been targeted as the cause for bacterial, viral and parasitic outbreaks in humans, including E. Coli and Salmonella. Source – Wikipedia.

Junk food isn’t a technical term exactly, but one that health professionals and pundits seem unwilling to repudiate in favour of something more accurate and honest. Hardly surprising of course – there is often little to be gained by accuracy and honesty when government policies and funding are at stake. So a misleading phrase like junk food slips easily under the radar.


The psychologist’s notion of the unconscious is so familiar that we forget how odd it is to say a person can be both conscious and unconscious at the same time. But since Freud, the unconscious has become a noun – an entity existing somewhere within our heads. Something we don’t know about but psychologists and other experts do.

It may still be a useful term, but we should be aware of how it acquired its place in our language. It may be an exceedingly useful term for psychologists with a living to earn, but that doesn’t necessarily mean useful for us.

Global climate.

At one time climate was the type of weather one could expect in a particular place, from a coastal town to an entire country. One often decided on a holiday destination because of its climate. There was no global climate apart from geological epochs which were surmised to have a climate generally different to ours.

By using the familiar words global and climate, climate scientists have created the impression that there is indeed a coherently understood global climate without formally demonstrating it. They have created the idea that global climates (plural) move exactly in step to within a tenth of a degree centigrade, without having to explain how extremely unlikely this is.

In fact we know this covert assumption isn’t actually true. It may be approximately true, but we don’t know how approximate. We also know the real situation is exceedingly complex. But by using the familiar words global climate as a technical term, this enormous uncertainty also glides silently under the radar.


Government is not so much a stolen word, as one which has been retained when it should have been given up for something more honest and accurate. Rather like a doctor continuing to prescribe after being struck off, modern UK governments do not govern in the original and quite recent sense of the word. What they mostly now do is present existing policies of the civil service and policies mandated by international treaty with bodies such as the EU and UN.

They may present them as their own policies, but that’s another issue. There is nothing mysterious about it either – the shift has happened and everyone paying attention over the past few decades knows it.

Yet political professionals and pundits still use the word government. The enormous power of familiar words is well illustrated by the way Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour voters genuinely seem to think they are voting for a government which will govern. They are not.


Okay, your turn now…

3 comments for “Stolen words

  1. edgar
    April 29, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    ‘Liberal’ is what I define it to be. And ‘illiberal’ is what you are when you disagree with that. No, wait a minute … ‘fascist’ is what you are when you question anything I, as a Liberal, say. OK?

    • April 29, 2012 at 11:19 pm

      Simple logic.

    • April 30, 2012 at 10:07 am

      Spot on 😉

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