Words that should be banned: Decline

Here’s something annoying that I’m spotting more and more often: journalists’ increasing use of the word “decline” when they mean “refuse”. Some recent examples, picked randomly:

Citigroup declined to comment on the cuts. – BBC website 17 November 2008

His lawyer declined to say anything about the charges and his spokesman did not return a call. – FT.com, 8 November 2008

Twice Gordon Brown flatly declined to answer. – The Guardian, 15 November 2008

In each of these examples, the person being questioned didn’t “decline” to speak – they “refused” to speak.

“Declined” implies a polite “thank you so much for taking the time to ask, but I really would rather not say at this time”.

But let’s be honest here. You decline a cup of tea or second slice of Battenburg. You refuse to answer questions about swingeing job cuts or criminal charges.

And as for “flatly declining” – isn’t that oxymoronic? (Actually, I think I rather like its implication of courteous dourness or gruff politeness.)

At first I thought the use of “declined” for “refused” annoyed me because it reflected a lack of sensitivity towards the meaning of words.

But, actually, I think there might be something more sinister going on.

When a journalist says that an interviewee “declined” to comment, they’re telling us: “I don’t believe he was hiding anything from me – I simply invited him to say a few words and he chose not to take that opportunity on that occasion.”

Are journalists just so hamstrung by the threat of legal action they go this easy on the people in power?

And worse still – have we all become so used to the age of spin that we accept it when journalists collude in protecting the feelings and reputations of the very people they should be challenging?

I think we should refuse to be taken in any longer.