“Say what you mean,” the March Hare advised Alice—a piece of counsel imparted by writing teachers of the old school. But, as we know nowadays, say-what-you-mean is a lot of old-fashioned baloney. If we were to take it seriously, which of course we can’t (don’t forget “mad as a March Hare”), we’d never get anything done in politics or culture. People would see and, even worse, hear us. And that we just couldn’t have, particularly while trying to alter social priorities and conceptions.

The fungibility and plasticity of language has haunted stewards of Western thought for a long time—at least since George Orwell’s day, half a century ago. “Political language,” Orwell wrote in his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” ” . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” To this end, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Welcome to the world of “choice” and “death with dignity,” a world in which a woman doesn’t abort a baby—instead, she drives to a women’s “clinic,” where a “health provider” “evacuates” the “product of conception.” To hear it, you would hardly know what goes on at these venues.

Except that you do know. Everyone these days knows. Our society has made a tacit covenant with death. It specifies that, provided Americans are not slapped in the face unnecessarily with graphic language (“abortion,” “unborn baby,” etc.), they will say, and better still think, as little as possible about what happens when “health provider” meets “product of conception.”

“What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” goes the aphorism. This is where “sheer cloudy vagueness” comes in handy. Extinction of life? Doesn’t sound exactly like what would go on in a respectable “woman’s clinic.”

We have had much experience with euphemism and verbal delicacy, thanks partly to our Victorian ancestors, who are alleged to have had difficulties using the word “leg” in conjunction with chairs and pianos. (The worst tales of Victorian squeamishness strike me as improbable—inventions for the putting down of a people more notable than we are for dignity, industry, and propriety. When you see these tales borne by the same sort of folk who invent “Victorian” substitutes that serve their own purposes, you wonder all the more.)

Death does discombobulate. This human truth should be acknowledged, because it is ancient and characteristic. We don’t die, we succumb, pass away, pack it in, turn up our toes. Myrtle, you will understand, merely “lost her husband; she didn’t tearfully watch him sink lower, day after day, until he finally died of prostate cancer. At worst, cancer “took,” not killed, him. This tendency to look the other way when Death barges through the unlocked door helps explain why funerals, over the past decade or so, have evolved into “celebrations of life,” with sentimental recollections, bad poetry, and, always, the “Ode to Joy.” We don’t like, in the funerary context, calling a spade a spade: perhaps remembering to what purpose such a tool is put once the mourners depart.

The modern era’s unease with theology makes it all the more susceptible to averted eyes at the gravesite. What if . . . what if . . . we don’t really . . .

All this explains only partly the modern proclivity to gloss over what happens in abortion clinics and will more and more, it seems, take place in hospitals and nursing homes, as the hopelessly ill “shuffle off this mortal coil,” with governmental permission. There is a bureaucratic instinct to say things in the most convoluted and uninformative fashion possible, but the bureaucratic instinct feeds off the political instinct. Bureaucrats work for politicians, do they not? Small wonder they should take their cues from politicians, elected or academic.

Thus, when the bodies of 54 aborted babies were discovered a couple of years ago in San Bernadino County, California, the resultant autopsy report was, to say the least, absorbing. The coroner’s judgment: “Multiple containers with products of conception are consistent with products of artificial termination of pregnancies.”

Here is one to ponder. No dead babies —just products of conception, reordered in their earthly journeys by the artificial termination of pregnancy. A veritable shroud of words blocks the nearer inspection. Through the folds of the shroud, who can see arms, legs, faces? Ironically, the coroner’s report speaks explicitly of “facial features,” “upper extremities,” “internal organs,” and even an “empty stomach.” Let us get this straight now—”products of conception” have “facial features”? How human of them! Is it possible we are dealing here with humans?

Stop that talk! All you’ll achieve, going on so, is the sowing of confusion regarding a very central constitutional right. The right, not the exact forms in which it may be applied, is all that should detain us. “Ignore that man behind the curtain,” booms out a great voice. Sham and humbuggery, of dimensions unimagined by the Wizard of Oz, are our lot in the abortion debate—such as it is.

The sham does more than conceal; it distorts. When the upstate New York abortion “provider” Dr. Barnett Slepian was shot dead by a sniper, the New York Timeslimned him. Slepian had “attended to women who for medical or personal reasons could not carry an embryo to term.” The still-unapprehended sniper will likely find one day that St. Peter cottons no more to homicide than to abortion. Observe meanwhile the delicacy of the portrait here: “Caring Man”—according to the headline—killed for “attending to” women. Attending in what manner? The physicianly, of course. There were these embryos, and—stop right there.

Embryos are pre-fetal. The Times is implying that Dr. Slepian performed abortions only in the first trimester? Even if he did, that would violate the Judeo-Christian understanding of life and when it begins. In fact, Slepian was not known for observing this exceedingly fine distinction. He embraced, as he had to for logical consistency, the modern woman’s right to abort her unborn child whenever she wanted to. (What makes a seven-month-old fetus worthier of salvation than a six-week-old embryo?) Yet here he is in the Times, whistling perhaps as he works, scrubbing out a few bits of embryonic tissue. Baby? What baby? No face, no fingers, no college prospects, no Social Security number around here.

Obviously the pro-Roe v. Wade regime that more or less dominates political life today likes things that way. But depictions such as the New York Times‘ enmesh us in lies, and lies, as Orwell understood, are corrosive, destroying the basis on which free citizens are able cooperatively to make policy for the common good.

If one side believes the other side to be populated almost uniquely by chiselers and liars, how good are the prospects for social peace? For peace of any kind? Ask Kenneth Starr, who must have posed to himself, over and over again, questions of this same import.

And so things stand, as the century and millennium end, with regard to what could be called semanticide—the murder of meaning. Murder with what end in view? Political advantage, mainly; power for its own sake, life and death no more than weapons in the quest.

The word “murder” tends to jar, given the degree to which the abortion controversy has desensitized us all. Even so, the word fits as neatly in the linguistic context as in any other. First-degree murder with malice, second-degree murder with mitigating circumstances, vehicular homicide—what’s the practical difference? Meaning dies, sprawled on the pavement; journalists, politicians, and bureaucrats step gingerly around it. But Nature’s abhorrence of vacuums is famous. So meaning is recreated—with such verbosity as it takes to rub out memories of the old meaning. Born (so to speak) are the “products of artificial termination of pregnancies.” As “suicide” and “euthanasia” (the latter a word whose Greek origins fail to disguise its meaning) go by the boards, “death with dignity” makes its appearance. Death, yes, but with “dignity.” Dignity makes it somehow all right: a kind of human victory over circumstance and suffering.

“Murder” or no murder, Orwell suggested the possibility that meaningful English could revive. In some sense, this is happening with regard to abortion. Take “partial-birth abortion,” a wonderful condensation of complicated meaning that brings home to the hearer the horror of what goes on in these procedures—brains suctioned out so as to collapse the skull, the corpse thereafter removed smoothly, efficiently.

“Cranial decompression,” the semanticides call this method, in their typical obfuscatory way. No, it isn’t—it’s partial birth abortion, and it kills young, living things. If too few Americans these days either care or dare to call a spade a spade, a spade nonetheless it remains. S-p-a-d-e.