One subject in the residence

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A police spokesperson from Buffalo speaking about yesterday's plane crash on BBC Radio 4 this morning said that in addition to all the people on the plane (no one survived) there was "one subject in the residence". The baffled Radio 4 presenter had to repeat back a translation into normal English. What on earth is the function of this police jargon? Are we supposed to be comforted or protected by this talk of subjects suffering fatal incidents in residences? We know that people often die when planes crash right into their houses. Why does the police style of speaking to the media not allow us to be told about it in such simple terms? I'm not just pretending to be puzzled here; I truly do not understand this linguistic phenomenon.

You might think, if you didn't think very carefully, that Orwell's overheated warnings about bureaucratic jargon (in "Politics and the English language") had some relevance to this. But Orwell's point was that the authorities have a motivation to talk about "collateral damage" and "incidental civilian casualties". They are trying to stop us from reacting emotionally to evil things they have done in our name, like killing innocent children by callously dropping bombs where people live. But the motive is lacking here. The police didn't crash the Buffalo plane. They are innocent, and we know that. Their sad role is to cordon off the street, protect the public from the blaze, and account for each dead body. What exactly are we being protected from when people in their houses are described murkily as subjects in their residences?


  1. Sean said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 6:24 am

    Dealing with and sharing those details day after day must be a heavy emotional burden on the officers themselves. Perhaps they are trying to stop themselves from reacting emotionally to the seemingly evil details of their profession?

  2. Sean said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 6:32 am

    To elaborate on that — in private communication, like officer to office, they could us jokes, cursing, etc. to vent or distance themselves from the worst of it, but in a public forum, those tools probably wouldn't be understood that way, so they aren't available. This is just my hunch.

  3. tezcat said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 6:49 am

    Maybe it's because there's no contextual "only use the Orwellian jargon when trying to obscure guilt or complicity" switch. Once the jargon is established as the 'standard' way for the police spokespeople to talk about death, it gets used regardless of context?

  4. Stefano Bertolo said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 6:59 am

    My hypothesis is that the spokesperson had a background of hundreds of similar communications where the "subject in the residence" had to be so identified for fairness and due process in circumstances where you and I would have readily assumed that "the subject" was committing a crime. Once you've gone through that routine a hundred times, it becomes natural to use it even when "the subject" is clearly an innocent victim and not a perpetrator.

  5. Jesús Sanchis said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 7:16 am

    I think there is a tendency to use specific words to refer to the people that you deal with in your profession, especially when there is a service-provider/customer relationship. I remember I was surprised when a friend of mine who is a librarian referred to the people who attend her library as "usuaris" (in Catalan), and used this word all the time, without a single instance of "lector" or something similar (that is, someone who reads). My students are "alumnes". When you enter a shop you are a "client". I am not surprised if police officers or emergency services use their own specific terminology to refer to the people they deal with. As Sean said, the use of specific words migth be a reminder that what you're doing is just work, with as few emotional implications as possible.

  6. mollymooly said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 7:24 am

    Maybe a police officer unused to public appearances and with no training in the art of communication attempts to adopt an official or formal register and ends up sounding stilted and absurd. I think this is not unique to police, but the nature of their work means one hears them on the news more often than others. A private individual (e.g. an eyewitness) can talk casually, as a civilian; but anyone interviewed in a professional capacity is representing their organization/profession and will feel pressure to add gravitas to their demeanour.

    Also, police forces use specific code numbers, initialisms, etc, to describe various crimes, suspects, and situations. An officer attempting to translate on-the-fly from this private code to an English word or phrase might pick a marked, uncommon word rather than the everyday one.

  7. Alex said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 7:38 am

    Since I have two police officers in my immediate family, my main hunch on wordings like this is that police officers often try to phrase incidents so neutrally, in order to be as generic as possible.

    In this case, a "residence" could not only be a house, but also a hut, treehouse, castle and so on, and "subject" encompasses men, women and children. I guess that in legal discussions of the incident, it would be more important if the plane crashed onto some kind of building that people live in (a residence) or into a forest, than if the building was a house or a castle.

    By using these generic legal terms, I suppose, they are at the same time using words that have a clear legal definition instead of a range of connotations.

    Since police officers (at least here in Germany, that's what my sister tells me) have to use these sometimes inappropriate-sounding terms in their reports, they carry them over into their day-to-day talk (my favourite example is that my sister always talks to me about having contact with "the citizen" when she just means "people" (plural or singular)) and – apparently also into talking to the press.

    Working as a journalist myself I can add that press releases from the police often try to sound "journalistic" but often end up in helpless police-talk about, e.g. "residences" and "subjects".

  8. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 7:44 am

    Often in air and sea transport the people on board are referred to as all-purpose "souls", apparently to avoid confusion over various numbers of crew/passengers/infants and even, I saw in one pilot forum, any pre-existing cadavers being carried in the hold, all of which the recovery services will have to sift through. If you say "there were 108 people on board" does that include the crew?

    As for "subject", perhaps the police, dealing mostly with crimes and criminals, have got into a habit of avoiding using any pejorative terms like suspect, perpetrator, wanted man and so on and have unthinkingly extended it to use here where "person" or "man" would have been more appropriate. They must deal with car accidents all the time; I wonder if they use "subject" in those cases too to avoid saying driver and passenger and pedestrian in case that adds an element of pre-judging.

  9. a. y. mous said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 7:45 am

    It is a habitual CYA technique that works its way into daily conversation.$40630


    "Or this: After conducting a traffic stop on a vehicle for an equipment violation, I contacted the driver and immediately detected the odor of intoxicants.
    [Plain English for Cops, Nicholas Meier, R.J. Adams (1999).]

    Do you use a baton when you're "conducting" a "traffic stop?" Is a "vehicle" a car? How did you "contact" the driver – with sticky shelf paper? What "detection" device did you use to smell something and, if you're smelling something, isn't it obvious it's an odor? "

  10. Mike Scanlon said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 7:51 am

    May I suggest stepping back a bit and considering the social and community basis of language. We understand words by agreement to certain conventions. It is fair to ask how those conventions form, but when examining the utterance of an individual they must be accepted as simply a convention. My suspicion is that "Residence" entered the police vocabulary because some particularly forceful dispatcher started using it- possibly as an affectation- and since his directives were easy to follow it became "enshrined" in the language of dispatchers, and therefrom responders.

    I have been reading Dickens lately and am surprised that even such an expressions as "crib" denoting a place of residence, or private home, was common in the victorian period. It's current slang use is actually a preservation, not an invention. It seems to me that "residence" may also be simply a preservation. The directives of a dispatcher, however they may seem, are a kind of formal statement, and "residence" is a more formal word than "home." That may have something to do with it.

    Think about a policeman trying to find his way through the jargon at a convention of linguists!


  11. Karen said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 8:38 am

    This level of language also allows the police officer to use the same words. Is the "residence" a "home", a "house", a "single-family home", an "apartment", a "duplex", a "town home"?

  12. Stephen Jones said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    It's bizarre but if the spokesmen doesn't know if the corpse was male or female, adult or a child, and living in a house or apartment block or set of bedsits or maisonette conversion than it is understandable.

  13. John Ross said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    Googling "police jargon" found this page, which says "We learn to refer to people, places, and things differently than civilians. A lot of it starts with police reports which must be articulated in specific and formal ways." In other words, it's just jargon. Perhaps spokespeople shouldn't use it, but when the pressure is on, it isn't surprising that they do (I was interviewed on the radio a couple of months ago myself, and it nearly reduced me to babbling idiocy).

  14. JakeT said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    Gotta agree w/ a. y. mous: This is CYA legalese the spokesman's trained to use so he doesn't say something illegal or more stupid. While the use of jargon is vacuous, it's not patently offensive nor is there any chance of somebody filing a police misconduct case against him for it.

    Unfortunately, our law enforcement gets hammered pretty hard by the media and what they perceive as the 'liberal establishment' (ACLU, et al) so they're usually on the defensive in these sorts of situations.

    This is sort of the police version of being politically correct; being legally correct, as it were.

  15. Mr Punch said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 9:59 am

    It's important to have an established vocabulary so you aren't overheard saying, "There's another stiff in the crib."

  16. Jessica said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    My father is a police officer and I can confirm that a lot of this stems from reports that police officers have to write; they are very demanding and reports not written with the correct terminology are marked up and sent back to be fixed. I'm sure after years on the force this just becomes habit and I think it is also a sort of emotional detachment. My father has been a police officer for over 20 years now and so it's even common within our family to use some police jargon. Like if we are going to meet somewhere he'll say "let's 54 at the mall parking lot" or "he's 10-98" or other ridiculous things like that. Maybe my father is just a bit overdedicated though. ;)

    I don't think it's so strange; most people speak with jargon when in relation to their job. As a programmer I often find myself accidentally using jargon that the everyday person doesn't understand.

  17. latinist said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    As someone's already pointed out, "residence" is more general than house (allowing for apartments, yurts, etc.); so referring to a "residence" in each individual case may make it easier to make generalizations later: "we've seen similar incidents in 27 different residences." Of course, that's unlikely to matter to this particular case, but you probably get into the habit.

    Also, I imagine police jargon has a strong relationship to legal jargon. If a judge wrote a decision somewhere saying that you can search any "residence" if you have evidence of the presence of "illegal narcotics," say, then it's safest to use the same vocabulary in describing what happened in a specific case, to make it clear that you're following the law.

  18. acilius said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    I'm sure that the comments above are all right on target about the potential ambiguity of everyday words like "house," about the official jargon of police reports, and about the difficulty of making it through a media interview without turning into a babbling idiot. But I wonder if something akin to the process Orwell described might not also be at work here. The police have a sad and distasteful duty to perform, and they want to perform it as quickly and in as routine a manner as possible. What they do not want is a parade of volunteers trying to help them by intruding on the scene. An alienating technical language might not protect us from an understanding of the horror of the crash, but it may very well help us to convince ourselves that we ought to leave the police alone and let them do as they will.

    I say this is akin to the process Orwell described. I should hasten to add that it is more closely akin to the processes Michel Foucault described in his prisons book. I offer it not as an original insight, but as a note on Foucault.

  19. tablogloid said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    I used to be part of a team that conducted media interview training for a wide range of public servants and my experience from hundreds of small role playing workshops indicates that police officers were the hardest nuts to crack when it came to learning to explain things in plain language.
    It is true that a lot of this is due to the fear of muddying the legal process and fear of disciplinary action by superiors ( I think it's called, "covering your ass").
    Unfortunately, as in the Buffalo plane crash, these pretentious responses continue to tarnish the public image of police. I agree with Mr. Pullum. It would have been more useful to use "person" instead of "subject" in this interview.
    Some other silly examples I have heard used by law enforcement and other agency spokespersons are:

    Everyone seems to use this one: "At this point in time" = now

    Evironmental clean up: "a mild surfactant was used" = soap

    Archaeologist: "triangular limestone chilt projectile" = arrowhead

    Public drunkeness report (my favourite and a verbatim transcription): "The female subject was intoxicated and found unconscious in a nude, fully unclothed state with underwear and empty alcoholic beverage containers strewn about the site of the occurrence." = one can only lol at that one.

  20. rootlesscosmo said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    Maybe a police officer unused to public appearances and with no training in the art of communication attempts to adopt an official or formal register and ends up sounding stilted and absurd.

    This seems to me consistent with the "professional jargon" accounts in other comments. Anthony Lane, reporting the O.J. Simpson trial in the New Yorker, described one police witness as "a man who never got out of a car when he could exit a vehicle."

  21. John McIntyre said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    As Mr. Ross and others have commented above, police officers learn to write, and speak, in the specialized language they use in reports. This language may have the effect of rendering events and details in a neutral, formal, distancing manner, and it may also be, like other jargons, a means of establishing who is in the group and who is out. Once internalized, the jargon is hard to shake. Since newspaper reporters tend to mimic their sources, it falls to their editors to translate jargon into something that sounds more natural to civilian readers: The police report says that the driver was ejected from the vehicle; the story should say that the driver was thrown from the car.

  22. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    As well as the legalese elements mentioned above, police and others may get into the habit of using certain jargon terms to maximise comprehensibility and minimise the chance of error over radio communications, which can be low-quality.

    For instance, one of the contributory factors of the Tenerife 747 collision where 583 people (souls) died was the lax use of "take-off" (as in "We're at take off") On top of the lax vocabulary, some communications had bad interference. One 747, not fully on top of the communications, tried to take off when permission hadn't been given. Afterwards, new rules ensure "the phrase 'take-off' is only spoken when the actual take-off clearance is given" and terms like "ready for departure" are used instead of "we're ready for take-off". So although the general public might say "we're going to take-off in five minutes", I guess pilots and controllers avoid it.

    When I worked for Prentice Hall we published a book called Airspeak specifically teaching standard jargon for air R/T.

    @ tablogloid – "triangular limestone chilt projectile" = arrowhead perhaps, but Arrowhead doesn't necessarily equal "triangular limestone chilt projectile". I would normally assume an arrowhead to be metal of some sort unless disabused. But you're right, I wouldn't suspect a triangular limestone chilt projectile was an arrowhead… and I can't find a definition of chilt.

  23. Arnold Zwicky said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    Nicholas Waller: "and I can't find a definition of chilt".

    Nor can I. Possibly the original writer was aiming for "chert" or "flint".

  24. Sarah J said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    mollymooly said, "Also, police forces use specific code numbers, initialisms, etc, to describe various crimes, suspects, and situations. An officer attempting to translate on-the-fly from this private code to an English word or phrase might pick a marked, uncommon word rather than the everyday one."

    Emergencies broadcast over police scanners frequently take on this impersonal, jargony pattern. I once heard an EMT at the scene report a person was "suffering vomit-like conditions."

  25. Irene said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    On the same story, but a different usage – are inanimate objects capable of refusing to function? Following is from an article about the model of plane that crashed.

    "But after the third incident — and a Lufthansa Q400 that had to make an emergency landing in Munich when its front landing gear refused to deploy — SAS grounded all its Q400s for good in October 2007."

    It seems to me that refusal requires sentience. And clearly, the pilot made the emergency landing, not the plane itself.

  26. John Jenkins said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

    I've read a lot of police reports (I was an intern at the local public defender's office when I was in law school) and they seemingly always talk like that. They use terms like Victim, Involved Person, Suspect, Person of Interest, etc.

    Apparently, at least locally, there is a class at the police academy on preparing reports that teaches them to use these terms and to never refer to themselves in the first person, always saying "this officer did x," which is just maddening.

    The intent is to make reports and statements difficult to decode and facially ambiguous so that the officer cannot be impeached on the stand with his report or prior statements if he says something different at trial. Given the amount of prevarication in police reports, it is sometimes hard for the officers to keep track.

  27. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    I wonder to what extent the police-jargon use of "subject" relates to its function in the jargon used by prosecutors (at least US federal ones) and certain regulatory agencies. Basically, a "target" of an investigation is someone where the authorities' working hypothesis is that he's violated the law and evidence is being accumulated for purposes of making the strongest possible case, whereas a "subject" of an investigation is someone where the authorities are trying to figure out whether or not he's violated the law and evidence is being accumulated to help make that determination. This is obviously a fuzzy line, but if the authorities tell your lawyer they consider you at present a "subject" rather than a "target" it does mean something reasonably specific, and ceteris paribus better than the alternative. I've occasionally heard refinements like "high subject" and "low subject" which seemed to refer to how far away on the continuum the individual was from crossing the line into targethood.

  28. tablogloid said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    Re Nicholas Waller and Arnold Zwicky @ 12:39 p.m.:

    My bad. It was chert, not chilt, that I meant.
    The correct quote is, "triangular limestone or chert projectile points". Projectile point implies arrowhead.
    Metal arrowheads were not on the table. The archaeologist was explaining the Levallois technique i.e. striking rock to form the point when creating a triangular projectile point.

    I hope this simply clairifies my points…at this point in time.

  29. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    @ Nicholas Waller: Having in my time tried to master a number of languages with reasonable success, I found R/T-speak surprisingly difficult to internalize. The reason for this lies, I think, in the fact that everything you need to say has to be expressed using a limited & impoverished vocabulary. When learning a foreign language one is always trying to expand one's vocabulary, use more complex constructions, etc — whereas with R/T one starts with a native speaker's richness of expression & has to pare it down to short, unambiguous phrases. You want to say, for example, "Where are you exactly?"; but eventually you learn to make do with "Your position?". You instinctively feel like blurting out "No, of course not!"; but eventually settle for "Negative". And so on.

  30. Berck said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    My favorite bit of police nonsense is the constant misuse of the verb "respond". For example: We responded to the residence and found two suspects.

    These are the same people that have twice issued me a traffic citation for, "Following to close."

  31. George Amis said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    Couldn't "triangular limestone or chert projectile points" be designed for spears, and hence considerably larger than arrowheads?

  32. James Wimberley said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    I recall that when the Channel Tunnel was being built, French and British police and firemen realized the need for much closer, day-to-day contact with each other. One result was the planned reinforcement of jargon; they could learn each other's stylised idiolects without needing a full idiomatic grasp of the other language. More here. The extreme example of this is the "English" of air traffic controllers.

    But there's no excuse for using trade jargon in talking to the press and public.

  33. Alan said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

    Alex: Working as a journalist myself I can add that press releases from the police often try to sound "journalistic" but often end up in helpless police-talk about, e.g. "residences" and "subjects".

    I'll join several other commenters in vouching for this. The whole business is compounded by newspapers' tendency to simply rephrase police reports in the third person, add "allegedly" before every transitive verb, and print the result as an article. (I spent some time working on the editorial staff of my old hometown paper and watched this happen at first hand. Got on the nerves.)

    The advantage to the newspaper is the same as that to the policemen: the stilted, unnatural jargon provides an almost incantational protection against liability. The disadvantage is a sizeable loss of clarity in a context where clarity seems essential… and, of course, it's fingers down a blackboard to those of us who don't think "advise" is the correct verb for any speech act.

  34. Lazygal said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

    I swear I heard one television talking head this morning say "There was one non-survivor in the house." If I hadn't almost swallowed my toothpaste, I'd have remembered which idiot came up with that phrase.

  35. dr pepper said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

    Agreed on "projectile point". It's possible the researchers aren't sure if they have a large arrowhead, a small spearhead, or a sling bullet.

    As for police jargon, it makes sense for the official terms to enter everyday speech. And having official terms probably makes analysis easier. Imagine a detective at the center of a difficult case. They've got canvassing reports from street cops, interview transcripts, forensics, and maybe some summaries of similiar cases compiled by the FBI. If they're all written in a common language, the detective is more likely to detect patterns and common elements.

  36. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 7:41 am

    @ James Wimberley "The extreme example of this is the "English" of air traffic controllers."

    It's about 30 years since I read it, but I remember a scene from Arthur Hailey's Airport in which air traffic controllers' speech changes from normal to ATC jargon-mode as they drive into work – instead of saying no they say negative, and so on. Getting in the zone, I suppose.

    If a BBC radio reporter ever contacted them, what they said might have depended on whether they were at home or at work.

  37. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 10:15 pm

    The Pennsylvania State Police seem to favor "actor" in place of "subject." A police report will say "unknown actors damaged three mailboxes along Lower Run Road by striking them with an unknown object…"

    If my memory is accurate, one police report about some juveniles who were damaging property said something like "homeowner pursued two bad actors down alley."

  38. stripey_cat said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    "Triangular" adds some clarification to "arrowhead", too (or "projectile point"). They can be broad flat triangles, narrow flat blade- or leaf-shapes, barbed, conical (mostly in metal) or anything in between. It sounds to me like the archaeologist was trying to convey as much information as possible without using technical terminology; when you spend a lot of time discussing small but important variations in form, you tend to develop a very elaborate jargon for the sake of precision. In another field (brought to my mind by leaf-shaped), here are a few examples:

  39. Ginger Yellow said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    I understand the comments about official reports and such, but I still don't get why "subject" is used rather than "person", except as jargon for jargon's sake.

  40. Joe said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    The function of jargon is not just euphemization as Orwell had suggested. Another use is a kind of shibolleth or an expression of authority or expertise. That's the function, I believe, that is at work in this particular example.

  41. acilius said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    @Joe: That's my view, and if I understand Foucault correctly, I believe it was his as well.

  42. Joe said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    @acilius: Not really sure why the shibboleth use of jargon is patrticularly hard to understand. While objections to it (Orwell's included) focus on unintelligibility and the euphemistic effects of it (those are still valid objections in some cases) the reason why people use jargon is that it expresses fraternity, authority, and expertise. Two peers from the same discipline can gain not just intrinsic but extrinsic knowledge (Is he the expert he believes himself to be? Are we in agreement on various issues concerning our discipline?) when using jargon.

    It's when the jargon seeps out of the discipline when the objections are raised. Orwell's misstep was that he generalized "political writing" to all writing–I believe that jargon has its place in certain types of communication.

  43. acilius said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    @Joe: I think we're in agreement, but I just want to say two things explicitly that you may already have implied. My two comments are on the sentence "It's when the jargon seeps out of the discipline when the objections are raised."

    1. "seeps"- To my ear, "seepage" suggests something unintentional. So if you're in the habit of using a particular sort of language during your working hours, that sort of language may, by unthinking habit, seep into your speech at other times as well. But many of the most objectionable uses of jargon, including those uses which could fairly be called political, are not unintentional at all. When the Pentagon decides to stop "bombing" and start the "vertical deployment of anti-personnel devices," it's hardly credible that they are not acting with the conscious intent to obscure the nature of their actions. "Seepage" doesn't seem to capture what's going on there at all.

    2. "out of the discipline"- This is the point that keeps reminding me of Michel Foucault. I mentioned him in comment 18 above and again in my reply to your first comment. I want to say that the use of jargon can be a way of expanding the boundaries of a discipline.

    How are the boundaries of a discipline set? The exponents of a discipline must act to claim territory and to hold it. In the case of the police at the crash scene in Buffalo, that territory is quite literal. They want people who are not acting on behalf of police agencies to leave them alone while they perform their duties at the crash scene. They want the exclusive right to perform certain physical actions at a material location in space. In that situation, jargon can be useful as a means of conveying the idea that only members of that discipline (that is, police officers based on the southern shore of Lake Ontario) ought to concern themselves with the crash scene.

    In the cases of other bureaucratic institutions, including academic fields, "territory" may be an abstraction. Whether the territory you want to reserve is a material location in space where you have a right to perform certain physical actions or a group of topics in relation to which you have a right to perform certain mental operations, that territory isn't given you by divine right. You must make it yours.

    How can you secure this abstract sort of territory? You might band together with allies and develop a common practice that "expresses fraternity, authority, and expertise." If the band is to persist through time and expand its claims, it must set norms and require allies to conform to those norms. Therefore, there must be methods for answering questions like "Is he the expert he believes himself to be? Are we in agreement on various issues concerning our discipline?"

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