Re-scope

DAN BROWN, The London Free Press

When it comes to the Ontario government using tortured English, the word “re-scope” is just the beginning.

In Ontario, there are no taxpayers, only “tax filers.” The McGuinty government doesn’t spend money, it makes “commitments.” And the provincial Liberals don’t fix problems, they “enhance” them.

“I think they’re using a lot of language to make bad news seem good,” said Jeff Yurek, the Progressive Conservative MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London.

Yurek and his staff have spent more than a month trying to get a definition of “re-scoping” from Health Minister Deb Matthews.

When the provincial budget came down March 27, the government famously announced it was “re-scoping” the planned redevelopment of St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital, not cancelling it outright.

“When I heard ‘re-scoping’ I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant,” Yurek said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before,” echoed Michael Fox, an adjunct research professor in English and writing at Western University. “It sounds like a new coinage.”

A dictionary definition of “re-scope” would probably be “to adjust the scope of” something, which would imply the scope could get smaller or larger. “The thing about rescoping is, it’s ambigious,” Fox explained.

But no one seems to believe the hospital will get more provincial money than it originally anticipated. So why not just say the project is being “scaled back?” If that’s the case, why not just tell hospital officials they will have to do more with less?

“I wish somebody would come out and say that,” Yurek said. “My understanding of the re-scoping is doing less with less.”

“Re-scope” is a euphemism — a polite word used to deflect or lessen harsh connotations. Fox uses the example of the old expression “used car” that salespeople have replaced with “pre-owned vehicle” to make their wares sound more respectable. Fox said euphemisms have become commonplace in the corporate world and government communications.

A glance at the government of Ontario’s official website reveals example after example of this type of wording. The government strives to “achieve efficiencies” (save money). Measures are “brought forward” (sent) to cabinet. The government sets up “legislative frameworks” (passes laws).

Fox suspects “legislative frameworks” is used to remove the finality of the word “law” and imply compromise. Bringing something forward to cabinet — and all instances of passive language — removes the active agent from the sentence, which in turns means no one can be blamed.

And why does the government “enhance” and not fix problems? “If you fix something, that implies that it was broken. But if it’s enhanced, you’re making a good thing better,” the language expert said.

The one word that’s impossible to miss on the government’s website is “strong.” Any action taken or support given is “strong” in this province, but does that type of obvious repetition work? Is the end result that Ontario residents actually equate the McGuinty government with strength?

“They must have some effectiveness,” or government officials wouldn’t go to such lengths to repeat such buzzwords, Fox said.

What this means is when the government uses concrete language — for example, urging doctors to get back to the table or employers to get shovels in the ground — it sticks out.

Yurek said in his experience the conventional wisdom about voters preferring straight-talking politicians is true; being straightforward “builds trust and respect,” he said, while repeating euphemisms and buzzwords means people tune out.

But Fox said we haven’t reached the point predicted by George Orwell in his landmark novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a totalitarian government invents Newspeak as a way to control the thought processes of the public.

“It’s not as sinister, absolutely, because we have the freedom to sit here and talk about it,” he said.

Nevertheless, the academic recommends Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. In it, Orwell writes that “Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”