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Choose your words carefully, politicos

If it's a given that rhetoric ramps up in election season, the Sunshine Coast is in the eye of a public relations hurricane right now.

If it's a given that rhetoric ramps up in election season, the Sunshine Coast is in the eye of a public relations hurricane right now. With a federal election hangover in the rear view mirror, we're now faced with an impending municipal election and a B.C. election campaign that's unofficially underway.

I'd like to ask all our political candidates to pay attention to one issue in particular: speaking in plain language.

In Grade 10, my otherwise jaded English teacher had us read an essay that has left a lasting impression on me. It was George Orwell's 1946 classic, Politics and the English Language. Orwell rails against cliché, wordiness and obtuse language and argues it has a negative feedback on our ability to think straight.

"A man may drink because he feels himself a failure, then fail all the more completely because he drinks," Orwell wrote, making the point that dumbing-down our language leads to dumbing-down our thoughts.

In 1965, semi-conductor researcher Gordon Moore predicted that the density of transistors on integrated circuits would double every two years. Moore's Law, as it became known, seems to have foreshadowed the way towards the information age, where complexity now seems rampant in all aspects of society. Bureaucrats try to keep up, resulting in reports that start to read like dispatches from the frontiers of English. It's great fun for reporters.

Cue the current political trend, reflected in what University of California, Berkeley professor Jeremy Sherman calls "radical nounism" - an emphasis on simple, noun-laden rhetoric at the expense of verbs.

Put simply, it's a reaction against complexity through the exhaustive use of "is" and almost no other verbs. It's a great way to avoid nuance and appear to be a leader, cutting through all the red tape, while avoiding elaborating on things that have happened. You may have heard a few of these catch-all nouns - words like socialist, maverick or empowerment - in the recent U.S. political debates.

"Sarah Palin is practically caricaturing the practice," Sherman told CBC Radio One on Wednesday. By using vessel-like words that can contain meanings as mutable as the audience wants them to be, politicians can speak exhaustively without saying a damn thing. It's almost expected today.

Maybe this was Stéphane Dion's problem in explaining his "green shift." Maybe he lost the confidence of his own party because he failed to distill the details of the carbon-tax-and cap-and-trade plan down to a few key nouns. A tough order - explaining the need to act on climate change to the public can be like trying explain the schematic drawings for the Large Hadron Collider to a five-year-old.

(The collider is that $9-billion physics project in Switzerland that's not only the largest machine ever built but potentially the source of a spontaneous black hole. Apologies for the non-sequitur, but I'm obsessed with it.)

Now that I've lost the thread, I'll wrap it up. Election hopefuls: don't be a stranger to nuance. Tell us your ideas, but do it in English, not a half-baked agglomeration of concepts and possibilities.

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