La Riposte

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Doublespeak: Revealing the Magic

Among other interesting facts that Arika Okrent chronicles in her recent book “In the Land of Invented Languages” is that writer and “Basic English” advocate C.K. Ogden coined the term “word magic” for the phenomenon by which language can be used to conceal the true nature of things.

And perhaps there is no better example of this than the magic that was worked in 1949 when, with the stroke of a pen, America’s Department of War became our Department of Defense. Of course this was not the first time in history a nation had engaged in this sort of word magic – in 1935, Germany changed the name of the Kriegsamt (War Office) to Wehrmacht (defense power). Both of these exercises in wordplay have served to mask the actual nature of the operations these organizations engaged in, which have generally been offensive in nature, vice defensive.

But even the term “word magic” seems a bit contrived – perhaps a better way to describe it is as Orwellian doublespeak –“ language that deliberately disguises, distorts… making the truth less unpleasant, without denying its nature.”

In the military/industrial/political machine the doublespeak trickles down from the top. The expression in plain English - “innocent bystanders killed by our bombs” becomes the innocuous-sounding “collateral damage”, which sounds like the sort of thing that is probably covered by some sort of insurance policy.

“Torture”, which Merriam-Webster defines as “anguish of body or mind ; something that causes agony or pain; the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure” rightly evokes a visceral reaction in most people, quite unlike that formed by marrying up two unrelated intransitive verbs to form “enhanced interrogation”, whose combined meaning translates to  “to question formally and systematically in a manner designed to increase or improve value.”

What can be done? The first step any concerned citizen can take is to become aware of the pervasive nature of the problem - in America today, the doublespeak is hardly confined to the government. Is that really a “Value Meal” or is it “1400 calories of fats, carbohydrates and simple sugars which measurably increases your tendency toward obesity and risk of cardiac failure.”  Is it a “balanced mutual fund” or a “system by which brokers receive a substantial fixed commission in exchange for gambling with your money”?

Once aware of the phenomenon, whenever presented with a euphemism or label, one ought to mentally reduce it to a set of simple words that accurately describe the nature of the item in question; conversely, one should attempt to avoid using doublespeak whenever possible. Doing this represents the second step in combating doublespeak.

Spreading awareness of the problem through discussions with friends, tweets, posts, e-mail and other communications medium is the third step that any private citizen can undertake on their own. The final logical step would be to ultimately reform the government and corporate “word magicians” that attempt to use doublespeak to manipulate society on a daily basis, but this may be too intensive a challenge for any one person.

Still, change must begin sometime, and somewhere. If not now, when; if not within, where?

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