Different people find different ways of coping with the pressure, but one method is to twist language in an attempt to escape criticism.
For example, there is the “non-denial denial”, meaning something that sounds like a denial but isn’t. A politician asked about a serious and true allegation might say “that’s ridiculous”, in the hope this is taken to mean it’s untrue and that the brewing scandal dies down without adding a straightforward lie to their charge sheet.
There’s also the unapologetic apology, as in “I’m sorry if you feel offended”, which could be read, and meant, as “I feel sad that you are such an over-sensitive snowflake”.
That brings us to the issue of the number of 40-somethings who had received their second dose of Covid vaccine by July 26, which descended into a bitter but trivial row over semantics.
In June, Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs “we expect to have given second doses to all 40 to 49-year-olds” by that date, calling it a “milestone”. So when figures showed 77 per cent of the age-group had been double jabbed, opposition politicians attacked the Scottish government for missing what they called a “target”.
Sturgeon’s response was that when she said “given” it was obvious she meant “offered” because no one is forced to have the vaccine if they do not want to.
However there is a problem with this response. One might reasonably think, based on Sturgeon’s argument, that 23 per cent of 40-somethings had turned down the “offer”, but that is not the case. Instead, while they had all, by July 26, been offered an appointment, that appointment may have been for some time after July 26.
So the “milestone” – which may or may not be a “non-target target” – might help civil service managers in charge of sending out the letters to assess how efficiently their staff are working, but it is not practically useful in finding out if the vaccination programme is proceeding at the expected pace. It is the date of the jab that is important, not the date of the letter.
Curiously, Sturgeon decided to attack her critics, saying “I kind of communicate at a level where I assume a certain level of intelligence on the part of people listening to me”, which sounds a lot like, “I used the wrong word, but you are the stupid ones for not replacing it with the right one”.
Perhaps she was tired or lost her temper a bit but maybe, just maybe, she was using this debate about semantics as a ‘dead cat’. This refers to cynical advice about what to do if a meeting is going badly: throw a metaphorical dead cat on the table. Suddenly no-one is talking about the issue you were in trouble over, instead they are expressing revulsion about the cat. Sturgeon even described her own remarks as a “rant”, which may have proved helpful for any headline writers who were unsure.
All politicians need to focus on what really matters – the vaccination programme, the economic recovery and learning the lessons of the pandemic – and spend as little time as possible on what does not, such as bickering about the meaning of words.