Sample from Chapter Two of Becoming
a Critical Thinker
In his essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell claimed that the "mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing." People have to think less if they use vague or stale language, he said, and "this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity." According to Orwell, political speech is "largely the defense of the indefensible" and thus "political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." As examples, Orwell cited the following terms and their real meanings: pacification = bombarding defenseless villages and machine-gunning cattle; transfer of population = forcing millions of peasants to take to the roads while their farms are confiscated; elimination of unreliable elements = people are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck.
Orwell reminds us that a critical thinker must be on guard not only against language which intentionally obscures thought by arousing emotions, but also against more subtle abuses of language: using euphemisms , jargon, and obscure language to deceive and mislead. Such language is called doublespeak. It is described by William Lutz, author of the book Doublespeak, as language which "makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable . . . .It is language that conceals or prevents thought. . . ."1 Lutz identifies several kinds of doublespeak according to whether euphemisms are used to mislead or deceive about an ugly reality or embarrassing situation, or whether pretentious, inflated, obscure or esoteric jargon is used to give an air of prestige, profundity or authority to one's speech or to hide ugly realities or embarrassing matters.2
Another kind of doublespeak which Lutz does not label but which ought to be mentioned is language which is clear and accurate but implies something which is false. For example, the expression "no cholesterol" on the front of a potato chip package whose ingredients (clearly listed on the back of the package) include saturated fats (which are converted to cholesterol when eaten).
1William Lutz, Doublespeak (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 1. George Orwell's novel, 1984, depicts a totalitarian state where language was one of the most important weapons used to control thought and action. "Newspeak" was Orwell's term for the official state language. And "doublethink" was his term for holding two opposing ideas at the same time, e.g., "War is Peace."
2Lutz distinguishes the use of jargon and gobbledygook, to be discussed below in separate sections. He also discusses the use of inflated language to make the ordinary seem special (e.g., calling a used car a "pre-owned vehicle'). We will discuss inflated language together with jargon and gobbledygook, rather than in a separate section.