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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

A CIA Agent’s Humorous Secret Guide to Government Phrases

You might not believe the origins of this government lingo.

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September-2017-FEA_SleuthingForCliches_US170906Joel Holland for reader’s digest (hand lettering), Ollyy/Shutterstock

Government-speak, that enemy of plain English, is a language that has annoyed Americans since the days of King George III. It turns out that among those peeved are our nation’s spies. In these ­excerpts from a declassified 1982 CIA internal newsletter, an unidentified analyst for the agency mocks Washington’s love affair with worn-out jargon and confounding double-talk. To add even more bite to his or her sarcasm, the author included drawings of imaginary beasts to represent the “strange fauna” of these “specimen samples of clichés and misused or overused word combinations that CIA editors have encountered frequently over the years.”

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“Overwhelming Majority”

The overwhelming majority is the best known of a species of draft animal used by many analysts to carry the burden of their argument and analysis. Garrulous and with an opinion on just about everything, overwhelming majorities are frequently cited by polling organizations to support their conclusions. “Overwhelming majorities” have to be present when it comes to impeachments, too. Overwhelming majorities seldom respond that they “have no opinion” or “don’t know.” (These are 9 things you never knew about the Secret Service.)

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“Viable Alternatives”

Nature’s born troubleshooters are moody and shy. They wander off when times are good because governments and officials tend to ignore them; when times are bad, officials are dismayed to discover that they don’t have any. Some suspect that viable alternatives may be related to problems because problems occasionally suggest viable alternatives. (Learn about these secrets the FBI doesn’t want you to know.)

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“Available Evidence”

One of the most awe-inspiring creatures is the available evidence, which ­intelligence analysts frequently use to support shaky conclusions. This vital and difficult task is accomplished with utmost tact—“Available evidence ­suggests …” As the name implies, available evidence is always nearby, whereas regular evidence may be off somewhere, unaware that its presence is needed. A shy creature, the available evidence always slips away quietly once regular evidence arrives either to solidify the conclusion or sweep it away. These quotes about democracy will inspire you to get curious about “available” political “evidence,” and vote.

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“Dire Straits”

Dire straits are notable primarily for their voracious appetites and penchant for ambushing the unwary. Dire straits come in several genders, but dire economic straits are more common than the political, military, or social varieties. Dire straits are an extremely social species; they always are observed in groups of two or more and never as a single strait.

“Far-Reaching Implication”

The far-reaching implication is an animal that governments often ignore because of its odd physio­gnomy: Its body tends to be ethereal, and most of its substance is concentrated in long arms. Governments are continually surprised to discover a far-reaching implication reaching for something embarrassing or dangerous.

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“Heightened Tensions”

Easily recognized by their elongated shape, heightened tensions are conventional tensions teetering about on stilts. In the previous century, heightened tensions were almost always military and observable only in the narrow no-man’s-land on the borders between countries. Their growth potential appears unlimited, and some analysts have reported heightened tensions heightening again and again.

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“Foreseeable Futures”

Foreseeable futures are the ­favorite pets of political and economic forecasters. No forecaster dares to be caught without one, and a forecaster with an obedient foreseeable future is admired by all. They are moody and dangerous animals, however, and frequently turn upon their masters, causing them great public humiliation, derision, and grief.

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Analysts are fond of ferreting out nonstarters, those unfortunate beasts that because of their physi­o­gnomy are destined never to enter, much less win, a contest. Their desire to compete is intense, however, and because of their marvelous faculty for disguise, they love to mingle with genuine starters and confuse the unwary. Journeyman analysts can quickly distinguish between starters and nonstarters: Genuine starters have brass grommets so that they can be run up a flagpole and saluted.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest