May 18: equivocation in the 21st century

Around the time Macbeth was written in 1606 the topic of equivocation was rife in England. Equivocation was the business of telling half-truths or hidden lies to escape earthly and celestial punishment. As a Catholic in Protestant England you could deny you were harbouring a priest by saying something like “A priest lyeth not in my house” which in your mind meant he was not telling untruths in your house, or you could say of someone “he came not this way” whilst secretly pointing in another direction. Shakespeare evokes the business of equivocation, you might remember, in the Porter’s speech in Macbeth.

We see equivocation at large today in the bogus statement “I have no recollection of that”, which is not a denial, not perjury. But you also see it massively in various trotted-out boasts of the modern world. Affordable homes, for example. The other day I saw a recognition of this in the poster emblazoned on a building with the term Genuinely affordable homes, a wink to the equivocations of legalese. We know affordable homes aren’t really affordable. I also saw, in an extension of this, on the the side of a recycling lorry We really do recycle, the emphasis countering the claims of bogus recycling that have been in the press in recent months (only yesterday I heard the story of British plastic recycled materials being found dumped in Turkey). In a word, language is now needing to re-claim its own truth from equivocation. Unfortunately, the equivocators of today are no longer hung, drawn and quartered.

Genuinely affordable homes

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