July 27, 2012

Say what?

Doublespeak, to use the colorful characterization of Professor William Lutz, is as old as language itself. Consider the evidence.

"Am I my brother's keeper?"
"And Brutus is an honorable man .... "
"Arbeit macht Frei.” (premium doublespeak)

As soon as man learned to speak, he learned how to talk out of both sides of his mouth.
Is the plague of doublespeak in American public discourse worse now than in any other place or time?   Such things are impossible to quantify, but it is hard to believe otherwise. The age of the Great Communicators, as was evident at the time and grows more obvious with each passing decade, is an age of words that mean something other than what they seem to-or nothing at all. All that the latest presidential election added is spin.

Americans have special cause to detest corruption in language.
The exact language used in the Declaration of Independence is the very cornerstone of this democracy-the first of its kind in history. Ours is a special duty to guard against the creeping tyranny of those who paint the worse as the better cause; who mask selfish motives behind appeals to the general good; who, in a word, do not mean what they say.

The following examples represent of what we have learned, to our cost, to tolerate.
Washington, the President of the United States addresses the nation; "Fellow citizens, last night I ordered U.S. military forces to ---- ." Translation: "Last night, I started a war."

Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but does not; that makes the bad seem good, the repulsive attractive or at least tolerable. It is language that avoids, shifts, or denies responsibility, language at variance with its real or its purported meaning. Basic to doublespeak is incongruity, the incongruity between what is said, or left unsaid, and what is. It perverts the essential function of language, which is communication, in order to mislead, distort, deceive, and circumvent.

Doublespeak is not, as some charitable people suppose, a matter of slips of the tongue or pen. It is, rather, the deliberate use of language as a weapon or tool by those in power to achieve their ends at the expense of others. As such, it comes in four principal, often overlapping varieties.

Euphemism. In its innocuous form, this can be a function of tact, courtesy, or custom, as when we say that someone is "involved with" someone else or that a "loved one" has "passed away." But what justifies the U.S. State Department's phrase "unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life," to mean killing?

Jargon. As the specialized language of a trade or profession, this, too, has its innocuous uses. Lawyers among themselves know that "involuntary conversion" of property is loss or destruction through theft, accident, or condemnation. But consider what ensued when a National Airlines 727 airplane crashed while attempting to land at the Pensacola, Florida, airport. Three of the fifty-two passengers aboard the airplane were killed. As a result of the crash, according to Herb Caen, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, National made an after-tax insurance benefit of $1.7 million, or an extra eighteen-cents-a-share dividend for its stockholders. National explained in its annual report, said Caen, that the $1.7 million income was due to "the involuntary conversion of a 727," thereby acknowledging the crash and the profit it made from it, without mentioning the accident or the deaths. As far as the stockholders and the general public could tell, they had had a stroke of luck.

Gobbledygook. The purpose of this sort of language is to snow the audience with a blizzard of words. Alan Greenspan testified before a Senate committee; "It is a very tricky policy problem to find the particular calibration and timing that would be appropriate to stem the acceleration in risk premiums created by falling incomes without prematurely aborting the decline in the inflation-generated risk premiums."
Speaking to a meeting of the Economic Club of New York, Mr. Greenspan, then Federal Reserve chairman, said, "I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you've probably misunderstood what I've said."

And then there is our most beloved, most accomplished, habitual, professional, 'double speaker' that ever resided in the White House who “didn’t inhale” or  “…I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman…”

Make no mistake. Gobbledygook only sounds like sheer stupidity. Its real function is to deceive.

 Inflated language or Pomposity. This kind of doublespeak is designed to give an air of importance to people, situations, or things that would not normally be considered important; to make the simple seem complex. Sometimes, it is merely funny. Think of those elevator operators now known as members of the "vertical transportation corps." But consider that in the doublespeak of the military, the 1983 invasion of Grenada, conducted by our "Caribbean peacekeeping forces," was not an invasion. It was a "predawn vertical insertion."

Doublespeak is not new. Julius Caesar described his brutal and bloody conquest and subjugation of Gaul as "pacification." "Where they make a desert, they call it peace," said the British chieftain Galgacus, that astute critic of cant. When a traitor was put to death in Rome, the announcement of his execution read ('Vixit'-third-person-singular perfect form of vivere, "to live": "he has lived"-which is to say that he lives no more.

"Protective custody" - the very opposite of protective; "winter relief" - a compulsory tax presented as a voluntary charity; and a "straightening of the front" a retreat, while serious difficulties become "bottle-necks."
Nazi Minister of Information (the very title is doublespeak) Josef Goebbels spoke in all seriousness of "simple pomp" and the "liberalization of the freedom of the press." Nazi doublespeak reached its peak in connection with the "Final Solution" (a phrase that itself represents the ultimate in doublespeak).

"Resettlement" means deportation; "Special Action Groups" army units that conduct mass murder; against this grim backdrop, the doublespeak of Watergate was low farce.

By this time, of course, we Americans have become inured to or lulled into acceptance of our own horrors-
"Air support," "armed reconnaissance," "interdiction," "protective reactive strikes," or "limited-duration protective-reaction strikes."
"Defoliation" (accomplished with Agent Orange) was too descriptive, so it gave way to "resources-control programs."
Civilians are killed by "incontinent ordnance," while a spy shot without a trial is "eliminated with extreme prejudice."
We have "preemptive counterattacks" or an "aggressive defense." Spraying an area with machine-gun fire is "reconnaissance by fire." Sometimes American troops "engaged the enemy on all sides" (they are ambushed) and have to effect a "tactical redeployment" (retreated). American troops killed by American bombs or artillery shells are "friendly casualties," which are caused by "accidental delivery of ordnance equipment" or "friendly fire."

Well, in the prosperous decades, where nothing mattered but making piles of money by hook or by crook, the gullible public was made to swallow not a tax increase but "revenue enhancement," not to mention "user's fees" and "tax-base broadening"- in other words, more and more increases that were not increases.

Such systematic misnomers subvert or even preempt informed public debate on public policy. A meeting was convened at the White House in 1982 for the sole purpose of finding an "appealing" name for the MX missile. Thus the Peacekeeper was born.

Similarly, officials of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission obstruct discussion of the dangers and problems of nuclear power by carefully chosen, well-disseminated words. When an explosion in a nuclear-power plant becomes an "energetic dis-assembly," or an "energy release," or a "rapid release of energy," and a reactor accident is an "event," an "unusual event," an "unscheduled event," or an "incident," what is there, really, to discuss?

Which brings us to the NRC's "non meeting gatherings," during which no written records would be kept. The NRC argued that since such "gatherings" are "non meetings," they did not fall under the requirements of the Sunshine Act.

Doublespeak has become so common that many people fail to notice it. Local politicians speak not of slums or ghettos but of the "inner city" or "substandard housing" where the "disadvantaged" or "economically non affluent" dwell.

Hospitals speak not of patients dying because of malpractice but of "negative patient-care outcome" due to a "therapeutic misadventure."

Meanwhile, the wizards of Madison Avenue tout "genuine counterfeit diamonds," "genuine imitation leather," a "home plaque-removal instrument" (that's a toothbrush), a "digital fever computer" (yes, a thermometer), the "hydro blast force cup" (a plunger), the "underground condominium" (or grave). Would you be willing to buy a "previously distinguished automobile" from any of these guys?

It is all too easy to laugh all this off, as some people do. Everyone knows the game, they say, so what real harm is there in doublespeak? They read right past it.

Yes and no. Where we see it for what it is, we can adjust. Too often, we cannot, and what happens then? Doublespeak accomplishes its end. It alters our perception of reality. It deprives us of the tools we need to develop, advance, and preserve our culture and our civilization. It breeds suspicion, cynicism, distrust, and, ultimately, hostility. It delivers us into the hands of powers that intend us no good.


The Chief Doublespeak Officer and your gaggle of fans said...

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."
Or "Do they really get paid for saying this stuff?"
Taciturnity is aurous!

frenchtoast said...


Charles said...

I know that I believe I understand what I think you wrote, but I'm not sure I realize that what I read is what you meant. ;-)

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

Just remember what I wrote about forgetting what I wrote.

Anonymous said...

"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda." ~George W. Bush - 43rd US President

SvO said...

The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.

Alistair said...

"Today's public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can't read them either." — Gore Vidal

Thanks, great post.

Mona said...

The First Amendment rejects red tape, cover-up and double-speak.
In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

Gen Y reader said...

Every speaker has a mouth;
An arrangement rather neat.
Sometimes it's filled with wisdom.
Sometimes it's filled with feet.

Thank you Ms. Edna, great post.

Anonymous said...

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