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Doublespeak

Doublespeak is language deliberately constructed to disguise its actual meaning, usually from governmental, military, or corporate institutions.

The word doublespeak was coined in the early 1950s. It is often incorrectly attributed to George Orwell and his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The word actually never appears in that novel; Orwell did, however, coin Newspeak, Oldspeak and doublethink, and his novel made fashionable composite nouns with speak as the second element, which were previously unknown in English. It was therefore just a matter of time before someone came up with doublespeak. Doublespeak may be considered, in Orwell's lexicography, as the B vocabulary of Newspeak, words "deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them."

Successfully introduced doublespeak, over time, becomes part of the general language, shaping the context in which it is used. See below for discussion of classified and unclassified.

In addition, doublespeak may be in the form of bald euphemisms ("downsizing" for "firing of many employees") or deliberately ambiguous phrases ("wet work" for "assassination").

The process of abbreviating names or forming acronyms to form new words, which arose during the World War and Cold War governments and corporate institutions, is now pervasive (for example: Microsoft from "Microcomputer Software" and Wikipedia from "Wiki Encyclopedia").

Whereas in the early days of the practice it was considered wrong to construct words to disguise meaning, this is now an accepted and established practice. There is a thriving industry in constructing words without explicit meaning but with particular connotations for new products or companies. For example, in 1972 Esso (itself a neologism from the acronym for "Standard Oil") changed to Exxon, a name chosen in large part for its graphic properties (some accuse Esso of changing its name to sound like Nixon, as he was running for president at that time; Exxon is still called 'Esso' in Europe and Canada). See also jargon, neologism.

What distinguishes doublespeak from other euphemisms is its deliberate usage by governmental, military, or corporate institutions.

Some examples of doublespeak, with etymologies:

  • human intelligence: spies
  • intelligence: spies or secrets
  • asset (CIA term): foreign spy
  • neutralize: kill

  • freedom fighter: armed political rebel (positive term)
  • terrorist: armed political rebel (negative term).
    Note however, that in scholarly contexts, "terrorist" is usually defined in a way consistent with the biases of the politics of the region where the scholastic institution is located.

  • classified: secret
    In World War II, secret information was distinguished into classes corresponding to increasing levels of security clearances (more doublespeak there), and came to be called classified information (as in "classified for a particular clearance").
  • unclassified: not secret
    Information which wasn't secret was then called unclassified, which carries the implication that the natural state of information is to be classified, in other words, to be made secret.

  • downsize, rightsize, RIF (reduction in force): fire employees
  • job flexibility: lack of job security (where job security means an actual or implied promise of continued employment)

  • taxpayer: citizen
    The word taxpayer means someone who pays taxes, and when used in a discussion of government revenues is not doublespeak. However, using the term interchangeably with citizen - the military is there to protect the taxpayers - implies that the primary role of a citizen is to pay taxes, or more generally, that the social contract (again, a term with a particular bias) between citizen and state is primarily economic. This usage has become popular in certain conservative and libertarian groups in the United States: c.f. Taxpayers for Common Sense, National Taxpayers Union.

See also propaganda, euphemism, neologism, Newspeak, political correctness, Noam Chomsky.

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