This Shit Doesn't Stink, It 'Exceeds the Odor Threshhold'

by Gareth Branwyn

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity."

George Orwell

I had a dream the other night in which Newt Gingrich proposed a national essay contest. The poor, minorities, gays, and abused women were to write an essay describing how their circumstances really don't exist. The winners — those who wrote so compellingly that they could even convince others in the same boat that perception adjustment is in order — would win a million dollars … and a laptop computer.

Dreams are curious things. This one was obviously inspired by the assignment to "write something on doublespeak" and the news that the logorrheac speaker had responded to mounting charges that he'd falsified his statements to the House Ethics Committee by explaining that he regretted any "inaccuracies" in reporting.

Language is as curious (and as shifty) as dreams are. Newt calls them inaccuracies. The charitable might call them false statements; his adversaries would call them bald-faced lies. Post-modern English has become Silly Putty in the hands of politicians and their spin doctors, corporate PR departments, the military, and other organizations and individuals who sometimes play fast and loose with the facts to make the negative positive, to cover up ignorance, or to perform other language sleight-of-hand.

In The New Doublespeak (HarperCollins), English professor and long-time editor of the Quarterly Journal of Doublespeak, William Lutz defines doublespeak as "language that avoids or shifts responsibility … that is at variance with its real or purported meaning … that conceals or prevents thought … Doublespeak is not a question of subjects and verbs agreeing, it is a matter of words and facts agreeing." Viewed through the distorting lens of doublespeak, an MX missile emerges as a "peace keeper," a bag of ice becomes a "thermal therapy kit," theft becomes "unauthorized withdrawal," sex becomes "penile insertive behavior," phone-sex operators become "discussion partners," crime becomes "a failure to comply with the law," making your employees work more for the same pay becomes "empowering the workforce," a bomb becomes a "vertically-inserted anti-personnel device," and AOL's new chief cybercop (a former CIA agent) is dubbed "Vice President of Integrity Assurance."

Even educators, those entrusted with teaching plain English and communication skills to our youth, are being seduced into doublespeak. Failing has been turned into "negative gain in test scores" or "sub-optimal performance." According to the Quarterly Journal of Doublespeak, in the Clark County school district of Las Vegas, Nevada, failing, passing, and making top grades have been replaced with "emerging" (Fs and Ds in oldspeak), "developing" (Cs), and "extending" (Bs and As). They're not even called grades anymore in some schools — they're now "student outcomes." Report cards currently sport such impenetrable evaluation categories as "Applies place value concepts to add/sub problems" and "utilizes problem-solving processes." One can only imagine what new heights of doublespeak will be scaled by students educated in such a thorny tangle of language obfuscation.

The scariest thing about doublespeak is that it appears to be on the rise. Increasingly sophisticated tools, such as focus groups wired to real-time analytic software, are being used to scrutinize the public's response to speeches and the media — in order to engineer more potent language (best serving the interests of the speakers, not necessarily those of the audience). Spin doctors can now examine, down to the specific word, the emotional responses generated by a speaker. Using this technology they can build databases of positive and negative words and phrases and tweak future speeches accordingly.

It is necessary, for the healthy functioning of a democracy, to have free, open, and honest public discourse. In a world where plain English is being replaced by doublespeak and hot-button word engineering, that honest communication cannot take place. As William Lutz points out, the increasing corruption of our public language — the language we use to debate issues and to decide public policy — is the corruption of democracy itself.

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