Speaking Politicianese: two phrases you hear a lot, but what do they mean?

If you listen to politicians or even televised media for that matter there are two phrases you are bound to hear over and over and over…. here is what they really mean:

“I promise…”

I love this one. Brings back cradle memories… and that is the only appropriate context this phrase should be used in- talking with children who are deeply concerned about something Mom or Dad is supposed to do for them.

In reality when a politician says “I promise…” what they really mean is “I am lying to you right now”. It’s almost always said about something the speaker has little or no control over. And it is condescending – promises are things you tell children to appease their fears, not because you are making an honest commitment to do something. If that’s what you really meant all you have to say is “I will”. Problem is, people can hold you to account for that.

Yet if you listen for it you will hear this phrase used in adult dialogue at least a dozen times a day. It is almost impossible to go through a TV show without hearing someone promise something to someone else – and of course it rarely gets fulfilled in a drama, so it is meaningless. And yes, art imitates life – it’s equally difficult to hear a politician say anything longer than a 5 second sound bite without bleating out a hollow promise or two. Because they know promises are made to be broken, what they are really telling you is “I am lying to you right now.”

“We have no choice but to…”

Another ghastly and dishonest phrase here, this one meaning “I am breaking my promise now”. In reality an adult knows there is always a choice. Do nothing, do something, do something else. if you really have no choice, there is not much point in having anyone elected to be responsible for whatever it is, is there?

Every day I hear this said by people in all kinds of contexts. And it is again condescending and in fact insulting, because I know – and so do you – that the reason they have “no choice” is the options available are unpalatable to someone. So having “no choice” is merely an excuse for not being accountable. If anyone working with me said that I would fire them on the spot.

The other thing that is really wicked about the “no choice” gambit is that it’s always “we “, not “I” who seems unable to generate any options. This is another dodge of accountability by whoever is saying it. I guess we’re supposed to take comfort in knowledge that they not only exhausted their own intellect looking for an option (and failing miserably), but everyone they rely on for help is equally daft.

So there you have it, the modern vow that constitutes today’s political platforms in 7 words:

“I promise” until “we have no choice”.

Laugh or cry… it’s the truth.  At least it will fit on Twitter.

  • Dave McNab
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