There's a paradox in modern attitudes about political language. Left and right may disagree as to which expressions count as deceptive packaging and which are merely effective branding, but both acknowledge that the American public is particularly susceptible to linguistic manipulation. Yet it's also fair to say that there has never been an age that was so wary of the mischief that language can work, or so alert to the dangers of political euphemism and indirection. How did we come to this point? Are political and public figures really more mendacious than they used to be, or does it reflect a changing media role or an increasingly polarized political climate? Why is widespread sophistication no impediment to the misleading use of language, and why do many of the most successful linguistic maneuvers pass our radar undetected?
Geoff Nunberg is an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford, and a consulting professor in the Stanford Department of Linguistics. He serves as chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, offers regular commentaries on language on the NPR show "Fresh Air" and writes on language for the Sunday New York Times Week in Review, as well as for other periodicals. His most recent book, Going Nucular, was selected by Amazon.com as one of the Ten Best Nonfiction Books of 2004 and as one of the Top Ten Books of the Year by the San Jose Mercury News.
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