Now that the United States has opened a third combat front in Libya, doublespeak rears its ugly head even higher. From Viet Nam’s “escalating” (increasing) troop levels to President Obama‘s “enabling our partners” (aiding American allies) with our “unique capabilities” (cruise missiles with automatic target recognition [ATR] systems) for a No-Fly zone, Americans have witnessed the increasing use of misleading language for the past 60 years.
Ever since George Orwell used the related term “doublethink” in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four to show how people could believe two conflicting ideas at once, doublespeak has become a cornerstone of American cultural dialog. Defined as “evasive, ambiguous, high-flown language intended to deceive or confuse,” doublespeak is not an “accident or slip of the tongue” according to linguist William D. Lutz, but a “deliberate, calculated misuse of language.”
Ranging from euphemisms (“downsizing”/layoffs) to jargon (“fused silicate”/glass) to inflated language (“negative patient care outcome”/patient died), doublespeak occurs most frequently when the language of one semantic environment is used in another. For example, Americans pride themselves in using direct, simple language in conversation, but government officials may utilize a language peculiar to their particular environments to express complex or unwelcome ideas to their constituents. To achieve greater acceptance, these officials substitute “assistance to the poor” for welfare or “supporting national defense” for giving more money to the military.
While doublespeak may be acceptable to spare a recipient’s feelings (a husband “passing away” instead of dying), its use to hide meaning or deceive corrupts thought by impeding people’s abilities to process information. Consequently, doublespeak destroys communication and trust because only clear language provides “any hope of defining, debating, and deciding the issues of public policy that confront us” according to Lutz.
Given its pervasiveness in everyday life (“green”/organically grown, “user fees”/higher taxes), can doublespeak be eradicated? It can by adopting the following three-pronged approach:
- Hone one’s writing skills by using technical terms and jargon correctly and by presenting complicated ideas in ways appropriate to one’s audience.
- Be on the lookout for doublespeak by exposing the incongruity between the speaker’s or writer’s intentions and words.
- Never use doublespeak knowingly to mislead or deceive the audience
With these guidelines and the public good in mind, individuals can keep the doublespeak monster on a short leash during the country’s public discourse. In the process they become better-informed, incisive, and decisive citizens. Aren’t those unique capabilities all Americans believe are worth having?