For some time now it has been obvious that our language is not up to the task of describing current events. Perhaps the most obvious and dispiriting example is the more or less ubiquitous use of the phrase “mass shooting” to refer to massacres such as those that have taken place recently in Nevada, Florida, and now Texas, where at least 10 people were killed on Friday morning at a high school near Houston.
When a euphemism suddenly appears and finds itself universally adopted, it is always worth asking what it is meant to conceal.
The earliest use of the phrase “mass shooting” I can find appears in a volume of the Congressional Serial Set from 1920. It is part of a translation of a Bolshevik radio broadcast:
Such a situation should decidedly be stopped. End should be put to weakness and softness. All rightist-socialist-revolutionaries known to local Soviets should be arrested immediately. Numerous hostages should be taken from the bourgeois and officer classes. At the slightest attempt to resist or the slightest movement among the White Guards, mass shooting should be applied at once. [Congressional Serial Set]
The most striking feature is the combination of words “mass shooting should be applied,” which suggests that we are talking about an impersonal, even a quasi-industrial process. It is about as bloodless a description of cold-blooded slaughter as one can imagine. It is also, of course, Leninist propaganda.
It is curious that its language should be echoed, right down to the extraordinarily inapt use of the word “situation,” in the initial “statement” — itself an especially noxious example of circumlocution, but you would be hard pressed to think of an acceptable all-purpose substitute for this genre of communiqué — offered by a representative of Santa Fe High School on Friday:
This morning an incident occurred at the high school involving an active shooter. The situation is active, but has been contained. There have been confirmed injuries. Details will be released as we receive updated information. Law enforcement will continue to secure the building and initiate all emergency management protocols to release and move students to another location. [Santa Fe Independent School District]
Our eyes are so accustomed to skimming documents of this sort that it is easy to forget just how ludicrous they actually sound. Here we have acts of almost unimaginable savagery reduced to a vague “incident,” another “situation” that has mysteriously come into being. The words …read more