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On the Origins of the Term “Doublespeak”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “double-tongued,” defined as “duplicity or deceitfulness of speech” dates at least as far back as the 1300s, appearing in the works of Chaucer.  Today, the related term “Doublespeak” is most commonly associated with George Orwell.  Doublespeak is a blend of two terms from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984: newspeak and doublethink.  

In the novel, Party leaders engineer a language, newspeak, in order to“narrow the range of thought” among the populace.  Stripped of “useless shades of meaning” and of any vocabulary, such as the word “science,” that might encourage critical thought, newspeak is fortified with oxymoronic terms, such as blackwhite. Such terms promote doublethink, which entails a “loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this…[and] also the ability to BELIEVE that black is white, and more, to KNOW that black is white, and to forget that one ever believed the contrary.”  Newspeak is thus simple, yet confusing; it is designed to squelch independent, logical thought and replace it with doublethink. Under the spell of doublethink, impossible contradictions are normalized. Doublethinkers can:

“…use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies” 

The merging of “doublethink” and “newspeak” into the single word “doublespeak” highlights a core notion of 1984: language and thought are inseparable;  control of the former thus facilitates control of the latter.  The blended term can be traced back as far as 1952, when Time Magazine used it to characterize the ominous words of Stalin. Widespread global use of the term is revealed by a search of BYU’s NOW (News on the Web) corpus, which results in 1055 hits from sources based in 19 countries where English is widely spoken,  such as India, Nigeria, South Africa, and Jamaica.

Linguist William Lutz has perhaps contributed more to our understanding of doublespeak than any other single individual; his numerous publications–including Doublespeak; From Revenue Enhancement to Terminal Living : How Government, Business, Advertisers, and Others Use Language to Deceive You (1989), and The New Doublespeak: Why No One Knows What Anyone’s Saying Anymore (1996)–offer practical advice for recognizing and defending against deceptive language.

In 1974, the National Council on the Teachers of English established the NCTE Doublespeak Award, “an ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.” Their most recent honoree was Kellyanne Conway, whose infamous insistence on the legitimacy of “Alternative Facts” in 2017 was so Orwellian, that, according to The Guardian, sales of 1984 surged.  And for those still without a copy, Rudy Giuliani’s blunt assertion that  “Truth isn’t Truth”  just a few weeks ago provides a fresh reminder of Orwell’s relevance today.   

Doublespeak is a use of language that can confuse listeners, dismiss viewpoints, or allow for the escape from criticism. For any nation, these effects can make a significant portion of the population more docile and less interested in democratic participation if the rhetoric is well-crafted. From our standpoint, examining how doublespeak works and how it is used can help prepare us for answering it.


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