Doublespeak is language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. It is comparable to George Orwell’s “Newspeak” and “Doublethink,” as used in his book 1984. and very similar to his description of political speech in his essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible… Thus, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness… the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. Where there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.” – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946
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In 1989 William Lutz, linguist and professor of English at Rutgers University, published his book, ‘Doublespeak: The Use of Language to Deceive You’. During an interview with C-SPAN, hosted by Brian Lamb, Lutz said doublespeak is consciously used to manipulate. He pointed out that his mission is not to eradicate doublespeak, but to eliminate doublespeak from the discourse of important issues where it is most dangerous.
“I’ve produced what I like to think of as handbook for survival in the 20th century, in the, age of the media, so that people will become critical consumers of language.
“You know, we talk about the consumer movement where you have to be aware of the product that you buy when you go and purchase something, you have to be aware of the language that’s used in our society. You are just as much, as much a consumer of language as you are a consumer of goods, and so you have to be a critical consumer of language, just as you’re a critical shopper.
“And, if you run across language that’s defective, take it back, just like you take back the defective toaster, and say, ‘I want an exchange on this one, give me language that works, give me clear language’.”
Chapter two of Doublespeak is titled ‘therapeutic misadventures, the economically non-affluent and deep-chilled chickens, the double-speak of everyday life, everyday living’.
What is “therapeutic misadventures”?
“In 1982, during a caesarean operation, the anaesthetist turned the wrong knob and killed the mother and child. The hospital called this, ‘a therapeutic misadventure’. Three weeks ago in Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Times, in a series of incidents that the pathologist called, ‘Incredible stupidity and incompetence, the surgeons killed the patient,’ it included slitting the patient’s throat during surgery. This was called ‘a therapeutic misadventure’,” Lutz said.
He stated that doublespeak is most prevalent in government, followed closely by the advertising industry.
When asked what his favourite doublespeak word or phrase was, Lutz replied: “The Department of Defence which, until 1947, was the Department of War.”
Below is a clip from Lutz’s interview with Brian Lamb. You can watch the full 60-minute interview and read the transcript HERE.
(Related: Doublespeak – The Power of Language)
In 1996 Lutz published a sequel: ‘The New Doublespeak: Why No One Knows What Anyone’s Saying Any More.’ In it he argued that there is a communications crisis in the US.
During a book tour he read several examples of how misleading language affects Americans’ lives and explained how citizens can act against such misrepresentations. His speech is 60-mins in length and truly fascinating. It’s well worth listening to the entire speech, which you can do HERE.
Below is a short excerpt where Lutz reads an essay he wrote on Tiananmen Square. His essay begins with a quote from Orwell’s 1984:
“Reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, nowhere else. Not in the individual mind – which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes – only in the mind of the party which is collective and immortal. Whatever the party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the party.”
Click on the image below to watch the video clip on C-Span.
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