I wonder how George Orwell would react to a phrase that has been repeated time and again by government and university officials to justify recent stringent actions -- such as quarantines and dis-invitations -- in response to the Ebola crisis.

These officials say they are acting "out of an abundance of caution."

It seems to be one of the phrases of the day, expressed by leaders who are trying to limit or eliminate contact, not just with sick people or people who have cared for the sick, but with almost anyone who has worked or traveled through countries where Ebola has spread.

Orwell was a famous critic of political speech, especially of the kind that used euphemism or passive constructions to cloud misbehavior or avoid responsibility. Mistakes, after all, are made.

To my ears, “an abundance of caution” is a peculiar phrase. It sounds like a parody of collective nouns such as “a gaggle of geese” or “an exaltation of larks.” How much caution will you exercise, Governor? Why, an abundance of caution, of course, sir.

“Abundance of caution” also carries the kind of tension you might find in an oxymoron (such as “jumbo shrimp”). “Abundance” is not the opposite of “caution” at the literal level. At the level of connotation, however, abundance suggests expansion while caution suggests contraction.

Which leads me to this strategy for journalists: Any time a political figure or thought leader wants to operate “out of an abundance of caution” – especially when the risk is demonstrably slight – look for the many ways in which they are operating out of a “scarcity of caution” – my term – when the risk is great.

Not a single American, to my knowledge, has contracted Ebola in the USA and died from the disease in the USA. On the other hand, here is a list of much more serious dangers to life and limb, based on statistics taken from the CDC. After each real danger is my fantasy of what a leader might say “out of an abundance of caution.”

  • About 35,000 Americans were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2009. Twenty-two percent of them were people 15 to 24 years of age. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to raise the legal driving age to 25, and to greatly improve the quality of mass transit in our community.”
  • 16,250 people were victims of homicide in 2010, most of them from handguns. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to initiate a Constitutional Amendment that will allow reasonable restrictions on gun ownership.”
  • 38,360 Americans took their own lives in 2010. “Out of an abundance of caution, we will establish community based mental health facilities, whatever the cost, to create a safety net for those suffering from mental illness.”
  • According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as 22 American war veterans, maybe more, take their own lives every day. That’s more than 8,000 per year. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to multiply by ten the budget for the care of soldiers and other first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress, and will raise taxes to pay for it. Out of an even greater abundance of caution we have decided to no longer send our sons and daughters into protracted distant wars that we cannot win.”

Fever? Headache? Muscle aches? Forget about Ebola, chances are astronomically higher that you have the flu or some other common bug. That message still hasn't reached many Americans, judging from stories ER doctors and nurses swapped this week at a Chicago medical conference. Misinformed patients with Ebola-like symptoms can take up time and resources in busy emergency rooms, and doctors fear the problem may worsen when flu season ramps up. . (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Fever? Headache? Muscle aches? Forget about Ebola, chances are astronomically higher that you have the flu or some other common bug. Misinformed patients with Ebola-like symptoms can take up time and resources in busy emergency rooms, and doctors fear the problem may worsen when flu season ramps up. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
There are many more real things to be afraid of in the USA. Influenza and pneumonia caused 53,826 deaths in 2010, and yet we don’t require folks to get immunized for these common diseases. Using the logic of the governors, perhaps we should “out of an abundance of caution.”

Here are some possible translations for various uses of the phrase “out of an abundance of caution”:

  • Because our lawyers told us to.
  • Because I know my constituents don’t believe in science.
  • Because I know my constituents don’t trust the government.
  • Because I don’t want to get blamed for something outside my control.
  • Because I don’t have the backbone to do the right thing.
  • Because I’d rather demonize heroic caregivers to make myself look decisive.
  • Because our lawyers told us to. (Oh, sorry, I already said that one.)