In high school, during chemistry class one day, the following staticky announcement came over the intercom: “Attention teachers, the book salesman is in the building. I repeat, the book salesman is in the building. Please lock your doors and do not let your students into the hallway.” The room erupted in nervous laughter. Whatever secret code had been established, it was obviated by the clarification that we were to be locked into our classrooms. And yet, the woman on the intercom could not deviate from the official script about the book salesman.
We found out later that a student with a gun had been roaming the hallways.
From George Orwell’s 1984, the moment at which Winston and his clandestine lover Julia are caught:
“We are the dead,” he said.
“We are the dead,” echoed Julia dutifully.
“You are the dead,” said an iron voice behind them.
Once the telescreen reveals itself to them, the voice it emits repeats their words in an unnervingly needless manner: “‘Now they can see us,’ said Julia. ‘Now we can see you,’ said the voice.” The adjective “iron” is used at several moments throughout the book to describe this voice. And to the iron of the voice corresponds an adjective often used for the music: “A tinny music was trickling from the telescreens.”
It is as though the telescreen had to recapitulate natural language and make it metallic, stripping it of its organicity. The official voice is, in a sense, the voice of an individual person. But only in a sense. As much as can be helped, it is to be metallic, inhuman. Tinny.
The land surveyor K. arrives in a countship where mutually contradictory ordinances delivered to him by vaguely aggressive functionaries thwart his every attempt to measure the land. The satire of what in German is called Amtssprache—“officialese”—is a dimension of Franz Kafka’s writing woefully lost in translation (truly, bureaucratic jargon in America is nothing next to the tortured, distended idiom that is offical German). K. obediently winds through this “bureau apparatus” but never advances an inch closer to the novel’s eponymous castle with which he has business. He is eventually given the advice, in confirmation of his suspicions, that “one may never take the castle’s official pronouncements literally. Rather, interpretative caution is at all times necessary, … all the more so when it is a particularly important pronouncement which is at hand.” In other words—don’t listen to the words as though they meant what they would mean if they came from just anyone. The baritone of authority is all you need to recognize.
“All right, is everybody ready?” asks the PR officer for the Georgia Department of Corrections. It is September 21, 2011, shortly before midnight. “All right. The court-ordered execution of Troy Anthony Davis has been carried out. The time of death is 11:08 p.m.” She explains what the protocol will be for media covering the event and concludes by repeating what is apparently the most important point: “But again, the time of death is 11:08.” Presumably, this exact time of death becomes the focus of the PR release because it can be so precisely calculated.
Who killed Troy Davis? It was not a person. Davis was killed in such an orderly, impersonal way that his execution could have only been stayed by a windfall turn of the cogs of state procedure.
As she reads, the PR officer’s voice is tinny.
The European Union holds what might be the Olympics of officialese. Paper pushers from bloated government offices from all over Europe come together to produce a language—parading as English—that is not only garbled, it is actually nonsensical to all but the initiated. The name applied to this tongue is appropriately hideous: “Brüssel Sprech.” Like any pidgin, Brüssel Sprech has its own idiosyncratic rules and conventions. The following serves both as an example of this language and as an explanation of the central linguistic authority to which it is subject:
“An agent has precised the modalities of actual English usage that can be used with reasonability by European actors and those engaged in planification.”
Vice reports in a recent article that Mexican drug cartels have taken to conducting media campaigns over the Internet. For instance, they upload videos to YouTube showing how they help the needy in the wake of hurricanes and they post endearing selfies with their guns to Instagram.
Cartel PR in fact goes back further. For years, they have relied on what are termed narcomensajes, both as instruments of fear and as assertions of communal rectitude (for instance, advancing the argument that that they protect the people from the government). These “anonymous” but distinctly official messages are unfurled over highway overpasses, painted onto walls at busy intersections, and written on posterboard that is attached to the mutilated corpses of their victims.
One of the earliest and now most iconic narco-messages from the Michoacán Family reads: “The Family does not kill for money, it does not kill women, it does not kill innocents. Those who die deserve it. Let all the people know, this is: divine justice.” Written all in the third person, the message explicitly assumes the legitimating mantle of theology. Other messages are more specific, targeting individuals (Mexican presidents being a perennial favorite). From 2008: “Mr. Calderón: war and executions will follow if your cabinet continues protecting criminals like Joaquín Guzmán, Ignacio Coronel, The Family, Óscar Valencia and Ismael Mayo Zambada.”
The cartels mete out justice in what looks like a power vacuum, in the style of Vito Corleone, assuming what in other contexts are the responsibilities of government. Like government, they claim the right to execute criminals and wage war. And like government, they need some way to make official announcements.
On the New York subway, recordings are played of a man speaking in a tone at once pleasant and blank. He reminds you that backpacks are fair game for unannounced police searches and not to grope other passengers. He ends his announcements with the reminder to “be alert and have a safe day.” Not a good day—just a safe one. That’s right. Just be glad you’ve survived another 24 hours. The people around you are all handsy terrorists. Don’t let your guard down with them. Be wary of everyone.
Everyone, that is, but the voice.