Linguistic contagion and detox

Sludge: the word’s connotations range from unsavoury to downright toxic, radioactive. But we produce a huge amount of it (multiple shit-tons, you might say), and we have to deal with that. And so we resort to code, euphemism, and other linguistic tricks.

Portobello UK cover of Rose George's book "The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste". The design is minimalist, dominated by male and female icons like those used to indicate public toilets‘When sewage is cleaned and treated,’ writes Rose George in The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste, ‘the dirt that is collected and removed is called sludge, except in the US, where it’s called biosolids by some people and poison by others.’ George devotes a chapter of her superb book to the nature of this ‘blandly named product’ and the bitter controversy over its use on land.

The Big Necessity, dubbed a ‘tour de feces’ by Nancy Friedman, lists five options for disposing of sludge: landfill, incineration, gasification (these three are expensive), ocean dumping (illegal), and land application. ‘It was not a difficult choice,’ George writes, and for the fifth option there was precedent:

In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) has been selling its sludge as fertilizer – brand-named Milorganite – since 1925, with discreet labelling. Only someone who knew what MMSD stood for would realize Milorganite is derived from a human body.

Milorganite is certainly an inoffensive-sounding term, like an obscure chemical element named after its discoverer. In fact it’s a multiple portmanteau (multimanteau?) derived from Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen. In 1925 it won a contest to become the chosen brand name. George continues:

The sludge and wastewater industry looked at Milorganite, and saw the light. No-one would want to live near farms where sewage sludge was applied. But people might want to live near fields that were covered in a fertilizer called something else. The transformation of sludge into ‘biosolids’ was brilliantly documented in Toxic Sludge is Good for You by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. The book was about ‘the lies, damn lies’ of the PR industry in general, but the manoeuvres of the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the US sewage industry association, were impressive enough to provide the authors with their title. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], they write, was conscious even in 1981 of the need to persuade the public to accept sludge farming. A Name Change Task Force was formed, and suggestions solicited through a WEF newsletter. The 250 suggestions received included ‘bioslurp’, ‘black gold’, ‘the end product’, ‘hudoo’, ‘powergro’, and – my favourite – R.O.S.E., standing for ‘Recycling Of Solids Environmentally’. Biosolids won, probably because it was the blandest. Maureen Reilly, a prominent sludge opponent and the producer of the prolific SludgeWatch newsletter, calls this ‘linguistic detoxification’.

The world of sanitation abounds in such verbal disguises. Even so seemingly straightforward a phrase as water-related diseases is ‘a euphemism for the truth’, Rose George writes. ‘These are shit-related diseases.’ In other contexts, just uttering shit will incur orders to wash your mouth out. Word magic lingers in obscenity, and the word – if you’ll forgive me – is made flush.

Much the same sleight of semantics underlies the renaming of ‘toxic’ brands, like Windscale (→ Sellafield) and Northern Rock (→ Virgin Money). Less insidiously it occurs in everyday discussion of human excretion: at the Great Exhibition in 1851 almost a million people first ‘spent a penny’ to use the new public facilities.

Linguistic alchemy of a more semiotic type features in the marketing of taboo-related products. Puppies, of all things, have become synonymous with toilet paper. Advertisers invented this improbable association, and with repeated exposure it commandeers a synapse or two.

Ideas can mushroom, meme-like, from the material to the metaphorical domain. In 2011 I jokingly suggested epidemiolinguistics to refer to the study of the contagious spread of linguistic features; that the word has 1 Google hit today is a measure of its DOA virality. Of course, before language can spread between people, it has to colonise their minds.

Terence Deacon looked at this analogy from an evolutionary standpoint in his book The Symbolic Species. It pops up in satirical form in genre culture like Pontypool, a Canadian horror film of linguistic interest, and Zach Weinersmith’s SMBC comic on linguistic infection, the moral of which could be: Before you talk shit, put a lid on it.

A frame from the aforelinked SMBC cartoon, with top caption "Soon, the entire student body was linguistically infected."

11 Responses to Linguistic contagion and detox

  1. bevrowe says:

    You could distinguish prescriptivists from desriptivists by the way they answered the question “Is there such a thing as linguistic sludge?”

  2. Don Vincent says:

    Good piece. I wrote about the sludge syndicate and their disingenuous use of the language of environmentalism a while back – it makes me sick…

  3. adinawas says:

    good sharing, is every language need a linguistic detox?

  4. Michael Vnuk says:

    You say: ‘Milorganite’ is certainly an inoffensive-sounding term, like an obscure chemical element named after its discoverer.’
    And I agree, except that I would say that it sounds like a mineral rather than an element. Many minerals end with ‘ite’, whereas no elements do. The most common ending for elements is ‘ium’.

  5. astraya says:

    So what happens to bioliquids?

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