Friday, December 08, 2006


"Very low food security" equals, "hunger."

This doesn't need much commentary: in these decades of obfuscation and b.s., we're all aware of the horrible abuse of language. We're hammered by it on a daily basis.


The hungry can't eat D.C. jargon

Wednesday, December 6, 2006


Good news, America! Your starving citizens are no longer in plight.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released a report clarifying that the hungriest Americans are no longer hungry but instead are disadvantaged by "very low food security."

Let's ignore the ridiculous image of padlocked pears and Big Macs sealed in fireproof safes. (Although at my house precautions close to those have been taken during Girl Scout cookie season.) While perusing the new classifications, I began wondering what advantages this nomenclature offers.

Is it more politically correct? Perhaps. But then how do you calculate PC-ness? If up to me, I'd find a hungry person and ask him if he'd feel discriminated against if I were to call him "hungry." Doubtful, but then again, it's always hard to tell these days. I'm positive, though, that my fraternity-living friend Kevin would never exclaim "Hey dude! Can we stop by Taco Bell? I am sooo experiencing low food security right now."

My lighthearted take on hunger may seem inconsiderate and even sacrilegious by downplaying hunger's significance, but here's the point. What this new terminology has done is create a dangerous euphemism for the plight of millions of Americans who already have difficulty alerting the "highly food secure" percentage of the population to heed the very real call of their grumbling bellies. Deborah Leff of the Public Welfare Foundation says it well: "When (the public) hears 'very low food security,' it sounds like bureaucratic jargon. It doesn't sound like people who can't get enough to eat."

So who does this new phrase aid? The USDA report was not clearer or more direct because it used the term -- on the contrary, I had to search for the euphemism's definition on the Web site. It's obvious that it is not to help understand the problem. Is the reason for the switch truly an act by a government that wants to "trick" the public into believing our problems are smaller than they really are? Or are we so caught up in love for ambiguity that we've finally found a way to complicate the simplest of concepts?

It's lucky that steps to address the issue already have been taken. In 1995, a group of enlightened government worker bees recognized the harm ambiguity and convoluted language inflict on society and formed a federal government branch called PLAIN -- Plain Language Action and Information Network.

PLAIN's mission statement is to "improve communication from the federal government to the public." But the underlying ideology is taken almost straight from George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language": The best communication is short, clear and free from unnecessary jargon.

A noble effort, but it's sad to note that the PLAIN site has not been updated in recent years. (This corresponds eerily to the recent euphemism-heavy presidential terms. Highlights include "alternative interrogation procedures" for "torture" and, of course, "Operation Freedom" for "invasion.")

How we decide to look at language ultimately shapes our thinking, and as a result, our actions. Will "low food security" affect my perception of hunger? Maybe. But it won't change the fact that 35 million Americans won't get enough to eat tonight, no matter how you say it. And that's definitely something to be insecure about.

Rachel Powers is an undergraduate at the University of Washington.

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