Language: December 2006 Archives

Doublespeak and Abortion

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I've been catching up on some really old posts at Language Log, and I noticed one by Bill Poser that I really think misses the boat on a few points. The post is about a general phenomenon of using nicer-sounding words that convey more positive connotations in the place of words that would cast a more negative light. Some of the examples he gives are clear euphemisms that might rightly be called doublespeak. When he comes to the use of language for the abortion issue, however, I think he gets several things wrong. I'll quote the entirety of what he says about abortion rather than summarizing it, because I think in this case the particulars of what he says are important:

It may be true that abortion rights advocates prefer to avoid the term "abortion", but I think there's more to it than that. Describing one's movement as "pro-abortion" suggests that one actually favors abortion, that is, considers that abortions are a fine thing. Few if any advocates of abortion rights take such a position. Their position is, rather, that women should have the right to have an abortion if they consider it the best choice: "pro-choice" really is a more accurate description than "pro-abortion". In the abortion debate if one wants an example of the use of propagandistic use of language, it is the use of the self-designation "pro-life" by opponents of abortion rights. Opponents of abortion rights are not in general advocates of a "pro-life" stance: many of them are quite sympathetic to military activity and favor the death penalty, both of which are considered by many others to be "anti-life" stances. And those who oppose abortion under any circumstances, even when the life of the mother is threatened, are not "pro-life" even in this narrow context. Rather, they take a position that values the life of the foetus over that of the mother. So "anti-abortion" is a much more accurate term than "pro-life".

Update: I hadn't read the article very carefully and was taking the ESV blog's tying together of the Tickle quote with the issue the post was raising, which was functional equivalence. My brother pointed this out to me, and I looked again at the article itself, and he's right. The ESV blog (they don't indicate who is responsible for the post in question) has tied Tickle's quote to something that it's not even close to being about. [Update: They have now added some clarificatory words, and some of my criticism here no longer applies. I have removed some of it.] This post has now been edited several times to correct several errors and to focus on the main issue rather than the original portrayal of Tickle's words. The comment thread may not be as understandable now, but I want the post itself to represent the argument I had originally intended to give, without distractions from things that turned out to be mistakes that aren't really relevant to begin with.

The ESV Blog points to an article by Daniel Radosh in The New Yorker that discusses Bible translations. The ESV blogger's presentation of the quotes from the article was originally confusing. They quoted an argument from Phyllis Tickle against adding all sorts of commercialized nonsense to Bibles to attract younger readers but placed it in a context about functional equivalence that seemed to indicate that Tickle was against functional equivalence translations. They have since partially fixed that problem (but not good enough for me), so I will focus mostly on the post's argument and not that other issue in what follows. The rest of this post is therefore an argument why I think functional equivalence translations can be very good (even if there are plenty of circumstances in which I would rather have a formally equivalent translation, of which the ESV is the one I use the most, for the record).

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