Doublespeak is language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms (e.g. "downsizing" for layoffs and "servicing the target" for bombing),[1] in which case it is primarily meant to make the truth sound more palatable. It may also refer to intentional ambiguity in language or to actual inversions of meaning. In such cases, doublespeak disguises the nature of the truth. Doublespeak is most closely associated with political language.[2][3]

Origins and concepts

The term "doublespeak" originates in George Orwell's book "1984" (Nineteen Eighty-Four). Although the term is not used in the book, it is a close relative of two of the book's central concepts, "doublethink" and "Newspeak". Another variant, "doubletalk", also referring to deliberately ambiguous speech, did exist at the time Orwell wrote his book, but the usage of "doublespeak", as well as of "doubletalk", in the sense emphasizing ambiguity clearly postdates the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four.[4][5] Parallels have also been drawn between doublespeak and Orwell's classic essay Politics and the English Language, which discusses the distortion of language for political purposes.[6] In it he observes that political language serves to distort and obfuscate reality. Orwell's description of political speech is extremely similar to the contemporary definition of doublespeak:[7]

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness … the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. Where there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, ...

The writer Edward S. Herman cited what he saw as examples of doublespeak and doublethink in modern society.[8] Herman describes in his book Beyond Hypocrisy the principal characteristics of doublespeak:

What is really important in the world of doublespeak is the ability to lie, whether knowingly or unconsciously, and to get away with it; and the ability to use lies and choose and shape facts selectively, blocking out those that don’t fit an agenda or program.[9]

Theoretical approaches

Terrence P. Moran of the US National Council of Teachers of English has compared the use of doublespeak in the mass media to a set of laboratory experiments conducted on rats. In the experiment, a sample of rats was first deprived of food, before one group was fed sugar and water and the other group a saccharin solution. Both groups exhibited behavior indicating that their hunger was satisfied, but rats in the second group (which were fed saccharin solution) died of malnutrition. Moran parallels doublespeak's effects on the social masses to the second group of rats upon whom an illusionary effect was created. He also highlights the structural nature of doublespeak, and notes that the mass media and other social institutions employ an active, downward-aimed approach in managing the opinions of society at large:[10]

This experiment suggests certain analogies between the environments created for rats by the scientists and the environments created for us humans by language and the various mass media of communication. Like the saccharine environment, an environment created or infiltrated by doublespeak provides the appearance of nourishment and the promise of survival, but the appearance is illusionary and the promise false.

Doublespeak also has close connections with some contemporary theories. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky comment in their book Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media that Orwellian doublespeak is an important component of the manipulation of the English language in American media, through a process called dichotomization, a component of media propaganda involving "deeply embedded double standards in the reporting of news." For example, the use of state funds by the poor and financially needy is commonly referred to as "social welfare" or "handouts," which the "coddled" poor "take advantage of." These terms, however, are not as often applied to other beneficiaries of government spending such as military spending.[11]

Main contributors

NCTE Committee on Public Doublespeak

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Committee on Public Doublespeak was formed in 1971, in the midst of the Watergate scandal. It was at a point when there was widespread skepticism about the degree of truth which characterized relationships between the public and the worlds of politics, the military, and business. NCTE passed two resolutions. One called for the Council to find means to study dishonest and inhumane uses of language and literature by advertisers, to bring offenses to public attention, and to propose classroom techniques for preparing children to cope with commercial propaganda. The other called for the Council to find means to study the relationships between language and public policy and to track, publicize, and combat semantic distortion by public officials, candidates for office, political commentators, and all others whose language is transmitted through the mass media. The two resolutions were accomplished by forming NCTE's Committee on Public Doublespeak, a body which has made significant contributions in describing the need for reform where clarity in communication has been deliberately distorted.[12]

Hugh Rank

Hugh Rank helped form the Doublespeak committee in 1971 and was its first chairman. Under his editorship, the committee produced a book called Language and Public Policy (1974), with the aim of informing readers of the extensive scope of doublespeak being used to deliberately mislead and deceive the audience. He highlighted the deliberate public misuses of language and provided strategies for countering doublespeak by focusing on educating people in the English language so as to help them identify when doublespeak is being put into play. He was also the founder of the Intensify/Downplay pattern that has been widely used to identify instances of doublespeak being used.[12]

Daniel Dieterich

Daniel Dieterich served as the second chairman of the Doublespeak committee after Hugh Rank in 1975. He served as editor of its second publication, Teaching about Doublespeak (1976), which carried forward the Committee's charge to inform teachers of ways of teaching students how to recognize and combat language designed to mislead and misinform.[12]

External video
Booknotes interview with William Lutz on Doublespeak: The Use of Language to Deceive You, December 31, 1989, C-SPAN

William D. Lutz

William D. Lutz has served as the third chairman of the Doublespeak Committee since 1975. In 1989, both his own book Doublespeak and, under his editorship, the committee's third book, Beyond Nineteen Eighty-Four, were published. Beyond Nineteen Eighty-Four consists of 220 pages and eighteen articles contributed by long-time Committee members and others whose bodies of work have contributed to public understanding about language, as well as a bibliography of 103 sources on doublespeak.[13] Lutz was also the former editor of the now defunct Quarterly Review of Doublespeak, which examined the use of vocabulary by public officials to obscure the underlying meaning of what they tell the public. Lutz is one of the main contributors to the committee as well as promoting the term "doublespeak" to a mass audience to inform them of its deceptive qualities. He mentions:[14]

There is more to being an effective consumer of language than just expressing dismay at dangling modifiers, faulty subject and verb agreement, or questionable usage. All who use language should be concerned whether statements and facts agree, whether language is, in Orwell's words, "largely the defense of the indefensible" and whether language "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".

Criticism of NCTE

A. M. Tibbetts is one of the main critics of the NCTE, claiming that "the Committee's very approach to the misuse of language and what it calls 'doublespeak' may in the long run limit its usefulness".[15] According to him, the "Committee's use of Orwell is both confused and confusing". The NCTE's publications resonate with George Orwell's name, and allusions to him abound in statements on doublespeak; for example, the committee quoted Orwell's remark that "language is often used as an instrument of social control" in Language and Public Policy. Tibbetts argues that such a relation between NCTE and Orwell's work is contradictory because "the Committee's attitude towards language is liberal, even radical" while "Orwell's attitude was conservative, even reactionary".[15] He also criticizes the Committee's "continual attack" against linguistic "purism".[15]

Modern uses

Whereas in the early days of the practice it was considered wrong to construct words to disguise meaning, this is now an established practice. There is a thriving industry in constructing words without explicit meaning but with particular connotations for new products or companies.[16] Doublespeak is also employed in the field of politics.

In advertising

Advertisers can use doublespeak to mask their commercial intent from users, as users' defenses against advertising become more entrenched.[17] Some are attempting to counter this technique with a number of systems offering diverse views and information to highlight the manipulative and dishonest methods that advertisers employ.[18]

According to Jacques Ellul, "the aim is not to even modify people’s ideas on a given subject, rather, it is to achieve conformity in the way that people act." He demonstrates this view by offering an example from drug advertising. Use of doublespeak in advertisements resulted in aspirin production rates rising by almost 50 percent from over 23 million pounds in 1960 to over 35 million pounds in 1970.[19]

Education against doublespeak

Charles Weingartner, one of the founding members of the NCTE committee on Public Doublespeak mentioned: "people do not know enough about the subject (the reality) to recognize that the language being used conceals, distorts, misleads. Teachers of English should teach our students that words are not things, but verbal tokens or signs of things that should finally be carried back to the things that they stand for to be verified."[20]

According to William Lutz: "Only by teaching respect and love for the language can teachers of English instill in students the sense of outrage they should experience when they encounter doublespeak." "Only by using language well will we come to appreciate the perversion inherent in doublespeak."[21]

Intensify/downplay pattern

This pattern was formulated by Hugh Rank and is a simple tool designed to teach some basic patterns of persuasion used in political propaganda and commercial advertising. The function of the intensify/downplay pattern is not to dictate what should be discussed but to encourage coherent thought and systematic organization. The pattern works in two ways: intensifying and downplaying. All people intensify and this is done via repetition, association and composition. Downplaying is commonly done via omission, diversion and confusion as they communicate in words, gestures, numbers, et cetera. Individuals can better cope with organized persuasion by recognizing the common ways whereby communication is intensified or downplayed, so as to counter doublespeak.[22]

Doublespeak Award

Doublespeak is often used by politicians for the advancement of their agenda. The Doublespeak Award is an "ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered." It has been issued by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) since 1974.[23] The recipients of the Doublespeak Award are usually politicians, national administration or departments. An example of this is the United States Department of Defense, which won the award three times in 1991, 1993, and 2001. For the 1991 award, the United States Department of Defense "swept the first six places in the Doublespeak top ten"[24] for using euphemisms like "servicing the target" (bombing) and "force packages" (warplanes). Among the other phrases in contention were "difficult exercise in labor relations", meaning a strike, and "meaningful downturn in aggregate output", an attempt to avoid saying the word "recession".[1]

In comedy

Doublespeak, particularly when exaggerated, can be used as a device in satirical comedy and social commentary to ironically parody political or bureaucratic establishments intent on obfuscation or prevarication. The television series Yes Minister is notable for its use of this device.[25] Oscar Wilde was an early proponent of this device[26][27][28] and a significant influence on Orwell.[27]

See also


  1. "Pentagon Is Given an Award, but It's No Prize". The New York Times. November 24, 1991.
  2. Orwell, George (2008). 1984. Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 978-0-14-103614-4.
  3. Herman, 1992.
  4. "double, adj.1 and adv.". OED Online. Oxford University Press. 2012. Retrieved February 6, 2013.
  5. "double-talk, n.". OED Online. Oxford University Press. 2012. Retrieved February 6, 2013.
  6. Kehl, D. G.; Livingston, Howard (July 1999). "Doublespeak Detection for the English Classroom". The English Journal. 88 (6): 78. JSTOR 822191.
  7. Orwell, George (1949). 1984. New York: Signet Books. p. 163.
  8. Herman 1992, p. 25.
  9. Herman 1992. p. 3.
  10. Moran, Terrence (Oct 1975). "Public Doublespeak; 1984 and Beyond". College English. 37 (2): 224. JSTOR 375076.
  11. Goodwin, Jeff (March 1994). "What's Right (And Wrong) about Left Media Criticism? Herman and Chomsky's Propaganda Model". Sociological Forum. 9 (1): 102–103. doi:10.1007/bf01507710. JSTOR 684944.
  12. Zais, Robert S. (September 1978). "Labels, Bandwagons, & Linguistic Pollution in the Field of Education". The English Journal. 67 (6): 51–53.
  13. Hasselriis, Peter (February 1991). "From Pearl Harbor to Watergate to Kuwait: "Language in Thought and Action"". The English Journal. 80 (2): 28–35.
  14. "A new look at 'doublespeak'". Advertising Age. November 6, 1989.
  15. Tibbetts, A.M. (December 1978). "A Case of Confusion: The NCTE Committee on Public Doublespeak". College English. 40 (4): 407–12.
  16. "Doublespeak".
  17. Gibson, Walker (February 1975). "Public Doublespeak: Doublespeak in Advertising". The English Journal. 64 (2).
  18. Hormell, Sidney J. (May 1975). "Public Doublespeak: Cable TV, Media Systems, and Doublespeak (Or) Something Funny Happened to the Message on the Way to the Audience". The English Journal. 64 (5).
  19. Dieterich, Daniel J. (December 1974). "Public Doublespeak: Teaching about Language in the Marketplace". College English. 36 (4): 477–81.
  20. Kehl, D.G; Howard Livingston (July 1999). "Doublespeak Detection for the English Classroom". The English Journal. 88 (6).
  21. Lutz, William (March 1988). "Fourteen Years of Doublespeak". The English Journal. 77 (3). JSTOR 818411.
  22. Hasselriis, Peter (February 1991). "From Pearl Harbor to Watergate to Kuwait: "Language in Thought and Action"". The English Journal. 80 (2): 28–35.
  23. "NCTE: The Doublespeak Award".
  24. Kelly, Tom (December 21, 1991). "Rape trial deserved award for doublespeak". The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec).
  25. Herron 2007, p. 144.
  26. Killeen 2013, p. 12.
  27. Bennett 2015.
  28. Raby 1997.


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