The Department of Modest Proposals

by Henry Farrell on March 26, 2009

“Gideon Rachman”: identifies a hitherto unknown apparatus of Britain’s bureaucracy.

However, I have now discovered a genuine government department with a title straight out of Dickens – it is the Department of Sensitive Words. This excellent institution has been brought to my attention by a man who is trying to establish a think-tank and to use the word “Institute” in its title. Since my friend is still involved in sensitive negotiations with the Department of Sensitive Words, I have promised not to reveal his identity. The problem is that Companies House deems certain words as “sensitive” because they are thought to convey an impression of authority or trustworthiness. Institute is one such word; British is another. If you want to use a word like this you have to get special permission from a sub-unit of Companies House – the Department of Sensitive Words, which is based in Swansea. In true Dickensian style, this is not an easy process. Companies House does provide a few guidelines on sensitivity on its web-site (its chapter three). But there is no form you can fill in and no obvious criteria to fulfill. But this is probably for the best. You don’t want any old person calling themselves “British” or “Institute”.

This is an _excellent_ idea, and one which should have been implemented in the US decades ago. From Kim Phillips-Fein’s new book, _Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan_ (Amazon, Powells)

In 1962,the executive committee of the board of trustees recommended that [the American Enterprise Association] change its name to the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, so that it would no longer be confused with a “trade association” lobbying on behalf of business: the new name would “more accurately describe the nature and legal status of the organization.” An “association” sounded like the Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Manufacturers – an institute, on the other hand, was austere, noble and pure.

Heaven forfend that the American Enterprise Institute would _ever_ be confused with a group of people shilling on behalf of business.

More generally, there is a real problem in a political system where an organization with a grand title such as Americans for Fairness, Liberty and Free Choice in the Workplace (this is an invented organization using some of the usual buzzwords – I imagine that lobbyists automate the process of name creation with a sekrit perl script) typically consists of nothing more than a few reams of letterhead and a time-share arrangement over some law office’s fax machine. Not only will consumers will end up confused by the profusion of astroturf groups, but the generation of such confusion is precisely the purpose. It is just this kind of market failure that governments are supposed to address.

Hence my modest proposal – that the Obama administration set up a similar office, with sweeping authority and immediate effect. I can see that libertarians might possibly get upset, but they really shouldn’t. After all, they suffer more than most from the market failure in question. The term ‘libertarian’ has been heavily debased over the last few years by groups and individuals who describe themselves as libertarians, but are committed to state torture of suspected bad guys, semi-ubiquitous surveillance of electronic communications and the like. One of the first tasks that the US Inter-Agency Task Force on Sensitive Words might set itself would be to institute a proper set of standards to police self-described libertarians, clearly distinguishing between libertarians themselves (the real thing), schmibertarians (those tacitly in favour of torture and surveillance), glibertarians (those who prefer not to think about political commitments that extend beyond a cheery embrace of Econ 101 as teh awesome) and Gibletarians (I _WANT_ SLOW THROTTLING!!! AND I WANT IT NOOWWWW!!!!!!). I can’t see how this wouldn’t improve our public discourse.



Fitz 03.26.09 at 7:14 pm

Is not Orwellian a better term than Dickensian – Or is Orwellian itself not “sensitive” enough.

The fact seems to be that there is a “Department of Sensitive Words” that operates in Great Britain. Posters of this blog should be more concerned with the very presence of a government department charged with this mission, than of (if even amusingly) advocating that the U.S. create such a department in order to undermine its political adversaries.


lemuel pitkin 03.26.09 at 7:23 pm

Nice to see there’s also a Department of Approved Blogging Topics being manned by Fitz here.


Righteous Bubba 03.26.09 at 7:24 pm

The word “university” is restricted to use by actual universities in many countries and that’s a good thing.

I suspect that a restriction on the word “conservative” may mean that nobody will be allowed to use it ever again.


lemuel pitkin 03.26.09 at 7:25 pm

Also: Invisible Hands would make a great subject for a CT book event, no?


MR Bill 03.26.09 at 7:27 pm

Appealing to history, you could call it “the Department of the Rectification of Names”.


Stuart 03.26.09 at 7:31 pm

There is a fairly complete set of rules they apply on the companies house website, they generally seem fairly sensible and I guess parallel the rules of the ASA.


Nick 03.26.09 at 7:44 pm

Surely it is a truth universally acknowledged that anything calling itself a ‘Foundation’ is, by definition, a front for a mafia of one sort or another?


Ginger Yellow 03.26.09 at 8:51 pm

Surely Pythonian rather than Orwellian.


PreachyPreach 03.26.09 at 9:03 pm

Actually, the drafting of that section of the Companies Act apparently contains the result of a drunken bet that a parliamentary draftsman couldn’t squeeze five ‘ands’ in a row into a single sentence.


PG 03.26.09 at 9:21 pm

I would think that unless the entity has some interaction with the government (e.g. is getting recognized as having limited liability or charitable tax status, or wants to trademark the name*), there would be a First Amendment problem with the government’s exercising authority over what it can call itself. The All-American He-Man Woman-Haters Institute has a right to call itself what it likes.

* My favorite true story dealing with trademarking names was when Dykes on Bikes tried to trademark their name, and the PTO refused because “dykes” is a term of disparagement inappropriate for trademark. (I guess NWA never tried to trademark?) The lesbian motorcycle club eventually won the trademark, though, by proving that they were reclaiming a term that formerly had been derogatory.


Ginger Yellow 03.26.09 at 9:35 pm

I would think that unless the entity has some interaction with the government (e.g. is getting recognized as having limited liability or charitable tax status, or wants to trademark the name*), there would be a First Amendment problem with the government’s exercising authority over what it can call itself.

Um, that’s exactly what Companies House registration is.


PreachyPreach 03.26.09 at 9:42 pm

Depressingly, checking my observation in no. 9, I see that the Companies Act 2006 shifted all of the detail into delegated legislation, and so the above is no longer true.


John Quiggin 03.26.09 at 9:51 pm

How about anti-defamation rights for dead people like Alexis de Tocqueville and George C Marshall, both of whom have had their names taken by ‘Institutes’ of the worst kind.


Bloix 03.26.09 at 10:42 pm

If Fitz had checked the link he would have learned that there is a “Circumlocution Office” in Little Dorrit, which is why the “Department of Sensitive Words” is Dickensian.

The joke here – and what’s got Fitz up in arms – is an apparent misunderstanding of the word “sensitive.” It’s got nothing to do with political correctness. Among other things, Companies House registers corporate names – a function in the US performed by the Secretaries of State of each state – and it bars names that might be confused with government offices, other corporations, or might otherwise be misleading. Like, you can’t’call yourself “The Acme Banking Company” if you’re not actually a bank. And you can’t call yourself “The Sheffield Cutlery Company” if the knives you sell are made in China. This is a consumer protection issue.

In the US, if one state won’t register your intentionally misleading name, you can find another that will, so there’s no point in even trying. So we get all kinds of crappy scams that trick people into thinking they’re dealing with the government or with a non-profit or a university, or the like.This is one of the many joys of our federal system.


PG 03.26.09 at 11:29 pm

“Um, that’s exactly what Companies House registration is.”

Oh, I got confused by the name — in the U.S., a company doesn’t have to be incorporated or otherwise a limited-liability entity. It’s just a word for a business organization, and therefore can be a partnership, association, single-owner, etc.


jacob 03.26.09 at 11:53 pm

The list of sensitive words includes this entry: “Sheffield – if you wish to use a name that includes the word ‘Sheffield’, we will need to establish details of the company’s location and its business activities. We will also consult the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire.”

What’s so special about Sheffield?


Bloix 03.26.09 at 11:57 pm

PG- in the UK the word corporation is used only for what we in the US think of as an almost obsolete meaning – a municipal corporation. For non-governmental businesses, they say “company” where we say “corporation.”


Bloix 03.27.09 at 12:02 am

Since medieval times, Sheffield has been the center of sword, knife, and razor manufacture in the UK. Blades from Sheffield are known for their quality and even today command a higher price. So you can’t call yourself a Sheffield cutlery company if you sell knives from China.


larry c wilson 03.27.09 at 1:12 am

Personally, I like the idea of eating fat Irish babies.


P O'Neill 03.27.09 at 1:46 am

There’s no truth to the rumour that George Bush is hesitant to call his Dallas outfit The Freedom Institute because an Irish predecessor with the same name did such damage to the brand.


Benjamin 03.27.09 at 2:32 am

Of course, understanding the difference between “Orwellian” and “Dickensian” requires you to understand the former with recourse to the writing of George Orwell, and not the Orwellian flattening of the term into something approximating doubleplus ungood. Or, we can all just agree that government’s the problem and not the solution, and call it a day. George! Charles! Highfive!


Cryptic ned 03.27.09 at 3:15 am

It’s useful to see US societies and organizations named exactly what they want to be named, though. For example, if an organization contains “Freedom” or “Liberty” in its name, it’s devoted to either the abolition of taxes, or the abolition of anti-gun laws. If an organization contains “Family” in its name, its goal is probably to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ above all false religions by denying the rights of homosexuals. If an organization contains “Taxpayers” in its name, it was founded to defend the interests of the 500 richest people on earth. These are useful heuristics.


dsquared 03.27.09 at 3:26 am

“Bank” and “Pharmacy” both belong to a category that goes beyond sensitive btw – you simply can’t use them unless you have a license to be one (Damien Hirst and Matthew Freud fell foul of this in the 1990s, when they opened up a restaurant which they thought it would be amusing to call “Pharmacy” because of all the drugs people took there. not allowed, chaps).

For anyone worried about governmental control of sensitive words, btw, I proposed a private property solution to the problem a couple of years ago (frankly, it was built around the joke about Peter Tatchell having a “monopoly on virtue” but I like it withal).


ChrisB 03.27.09 at 5:16 am

In Australia, now,

6203. For paragraph 147(1)(c) or 601DC(1)(c) of the Corporations Act 2001, a name is unacceptable for registration if the name:
(e) in the context in which it is proposed to be used, suggests a connection with:
(i) a member of the Royal Family; or
(ii) the receipt of Royal patronage; or
(iii) an ex-servicemen’s organisation; or
(iv) Sir Donald Bradman.


Helen 03.27.09 at 6:08 am

In Australia, also, we have a plethora of mickey-mouse “institutes” – as I’m sure you have too – like the ‘Adelaide Institute’, which is a sad old racist and his kitchen table. Other institutes, not much further up the evolutionary scale from that one, are forever having articles by their “fellows” published in the dailies. So, a meme has grown up whereby people write letters to the paper signed, not by A. Guy from Narre Warren(for example) but “A. Guy, director, Narre Warren Institute.”


A. Y. Mous 03.27.09 at 7:56 am

I suggest the department be named “Governmental Omdudsman for Denotations”, in keeping with the tradition of having a TLA, plus being an Ombudsman, the American penchant for non-Govt. entities is indulged.

So, should Ed Liddy file a case against me for encashing all Treasury checks made out to “AIG”, I can tell the court that God sanctioned my company’s name to be American Institute of Greed.


Pete 03.27.09 at 12:48 pm

See also the history of “Black Sheep Bank” :

Of course, in the UK it’s still legal as an individual to have any name you like, so long as it is not for fraudulent purposes. I don’t think there’s even a requirement that it be writable in Roman lettering, although the inevitable introduction of ID cards may enforce that.


KCinDC 03.27.09 at 1:46 pm

What about all those “mints” that sell limited-edition medallions and other similar “collectible” junk?

And United Parcel Service and Federal Express chose names designed to imply governmental affiliation, though nowadays they’ve become such well-known brands that no one would think that (plus they’ve abandoned their names in favor of abbreviations anyway).


marcel 03.27.09 at 2:46 pm

This being the US, at least where I sit, I plan to begin my own Department of Sensitive Words (TM). I’ll start with Anglicisms that make our hearty, robust language sound too prissy, too sensitive. First on the list is ‘withal’ (see 23 above). Second is ‘walk the talk’ (see link at 23 above), which all right thinking people know is “walk the walk”. If you doubt me, google ‘walk the talk’ and you’ll see that the most prominent links are to management consulting firms; you will also see one that explains the decline from the true form of the phrase (for more on this Orwellian phenomenon, see this.).


Per Kurowski 03.27.09 at 3:10 pm

So Companies House has to approve the use of some sensitive words before they can be institutionally used “because they are thought to convey an impression of authority or trustworthiness”?

How sad that “credit ratings AAA” did not submit an application. It would have saved the world quite many trillions of dollars or what´s almost the same pounds sterling.


jackd 03.27.09 at 8:41 pm

This conversation is incomplete without reference to one of the most highly-regarded ‘toots on the net.


mollymooly 03.28.09 at 12:43 am

There goes my plan to open the Bradman Cyfyngedig Institute of Friendly Sheffield Chemistry .


ajay 03.31.09 at 4:51 pm

6203. For paragraph 147(1)(c) or 601DC(1)(c) of the Corporations Act 2001, a name is unacceptable for registration if the name:
(e) in the context in which it is proposed to be used, suggests a connection with:
(i) a member of the Royal Family; or…
(iv) Sir Donald Bradman.

…but we repeat ourselves.

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