• Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf, Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language, Blue Rider Press, 2015, 341 pages, $27.50.
Like Eric Idle of Monty Python fame, most readers dislike those who vent their loquacity with extraneous bombastic circumlocution. So as national elections draw near, any book purporting to expose “deliberately deceptive language” is certainly welcome.
Right of out the gate, Spinglish has prompted glowing comparisons to George Orwell and the back cover has the Animal Farm author, who died in 1950, saying, “I only wish I had lived long enough to read this incomparable book.”
National Lampoon vets Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf have uncovered “Spinocchios” at work everywhere, and readers will find much of their work familiar. “Adorable,” for example, is a real-estate term for an extremely small house. “Academically fragile” is a reference to a student with poor grades and skimpy class attendance. “Aversion therapy,” is actually shock treatment, even torture, something Jack Nicholson would recognize.
In similar style, many readers already will be aware that to “downsize” is to “lay off a significant percentage of one’s employees,” that “freelancer” can mean unemployed, and that “negative net worth” means bankruptcy. “Offered a package” means “fired,” as many workers know full well. But some may have fallen for “marbled,” an adjective used to make fatty beef sound more appealing.
“Critically acclaimed” usually means a book with disappointing sales and “Hemingwayesque” denotes short sentences. As journalists know, “noted authority” is anyone willing to return a reporter’s phone calls, and unfounded statements often come prefaced with the term “arguably.” In the hands of psychological specialists, shyness becomes “Social Anxiety Disorder.” “Pre-owned” means used, “urban art” is graffiti, and of course a “water landing,” as Jay Leno used to point out, is a plane crash at sea. Much of this material is great fun, and the book comes with illustrations, such as Janet Leigh in the famous shower scene, with a note that an emotionally disturbed person once meant a “psycho.”
The Spinocchios are most active in politics and many readers will find that Spinglish revolves to the port side. In fact, the authors telegraph it with a flare gun. The first entry, “Abortion Machine,” goes after Rush Limbaugh, and Republican strategist Frank Luntz is a frequent target. “Birth pangs of a New Middle East,” is a short essay on Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush gets similar huffy treatment in entries for “Coalition of the Willing,” “Enemy Combatants,” “Surge,” and “Homicide bomber.” That one doubles for Fox News, whose “fair and balanced” also gets a going over, as does the National Rifle Association in “Jack-booted government thugs.” The entry for “Death panels,” amounts to a short, negative op-ed piece on Sarah Palin and “job-killing regulations,” like most of the book, is not kind to Republicans in general.
Prominent national Democrats and their support groups do not get equal treatment in Spinglish but the authors, to their great credit, do not entirely neglect them. As they note, Bill Clinton can work wonders with the word “is.” In that spirit, Beard and Cerf might have taken on Hillary Clinton’s “What does it matter?” a dismissal of terrorism on her watch as secretary of state.
President Obama duly shows up in “JV Team,” which he used to disparage the ability of Islamic State fighters, and “Man-caused disasters,” the president’s rather curious term for terrorism. His most deceptive formulation, “Affordable Care Act” does not get an entry. The authors could have described it accurately as a “taking” and highly unaffordable to boot. Fortunately, they cover “incorrect promise,” from the New York Times, which means “a lie.” Contrary to the president’s claim, Americans could not keep the health plans they liked.
The authors also explain that “affirmative action” means preferential treatment, racial quotas, and reverse discrimination. And “invest,” as used by politicians, does indeed mean “spend,” as the authors explain. East Berlin’s “Anti-fascist bulwark,” also known as the Berlin Wall, kept its own citizens from fleeing. On the other hand, they view “entitlement reform” as nothing more than “gutting” Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. A “freedom fighter” is not merely a terrorist who happens to be on your side, and in “pacification” the authors scrape the barrel on Vietnam.
Spinglish lacks an entry for “socialized medicine,” a favorite of conservatives, which really means “government monopoly health care.” The book avoids the “mainstream media,” another conservative favorite, which really means “old-line establishment media,” fond of formulations such as “incorrect promise.”
To entertain and instruct at the same time is a daunting task and the authors pull it off only in part. The biggest fans of Spinglish will be critics who agree with the authors’ politics. This reviewer, however, is also going to compare Beard and Cerf’s book to George Orwell. It’s not nearly as good, and readers should be aware of a back story.
Christopher Cerf’s father was Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House. During World War II, Bennett Cerf proposed a publishing ban on all books critical of the Soviet Union. One of those was George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a work of genius rejected by 14 publishers, including T.S. Eliot on behalf of Faber and Faber, because it was too unkind to Joseph Stalin. Think about that as you read Animal Farm, 1984, Homage to Catalonia, and particularly Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” Then maybe have a go at Spinglish.
Lloyd Billingsley is author of Hollywood Party and Bill of Writes, a forthcoming collection of his journalism.