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Doublespeak dominates our language

By TJ Ray

As one ages, the use of euphemisms to describe a condition becomes more noticeable. Instead of “elderly” or “senior citizens” one might find himself being called a “chronologically experienced citizen.” Or at the end, his doctor may record his demise with this comment: “Patient failed to fulfill his wellness potential.”

Calling things by strange terms pervades our world. Call it hype or propaganda or lying, the objective of doublespeak is to gloss over and disguise a reality the speaker wants to protect. It requires no rocket scientist to find examples of this in everyday parlance as well as in commercial pitches or political speech.

In his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell 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.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense 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.

For example, in 1986, officials at NASA, Thiokol, and Rockwell International commented after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. They referred to the explosion as an “anomaly,” the astronauts’ bodies as “recovered components,” and the astronauts’ coffins as “crew transfer containers.”

Years ago the National Council of Teachers of English formed a committee to examine word abuse in society. For a while that group distributed “The Quarterly Review of Doublespeak.” Efforts were made to inform teachers about the serious impact of double-talk on the public’s perception of its world.

One needn’t belong to the NCTE to find lurid examples of doublespeak:

According to the tax bill signed by President Reagan on December 22, 1987, Don Tyson and his sister-in-law Barbara run a “family farm.” Their “farm” has 25,000 employees and grosses $1.7 billion a year. But as a “family farm” they get tax breaks that save them $135 million a year.

After a recent airplane accident, the FAA said the propeller didn’t break off — it was just a case of “uncontained blade liberation.”

And at McClellan Air Force base in California, civilian mechanics were placed on “non-duty, non-pay status.” That is, they were fired.

The NCTE folks gives out a Doublespeak Award. Perhaps a few will be of interest:

• 1979 – The nuclear power industry, for inventing a number of jargon terms and euphemisms before, during, and after the Three Mile Island accident, including referring to an explosion as “energetic disassembly,” fire as “rapid oxidation,” and a reactor accident as an “event,” an “abnormal evolution,” a “normal aberration,” or a “plant transient.”

• 2004 – The George W. Bush Administration for manipulating and forging intelligence data about Iraq, for creating euphemisms to downplay the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse, and for the Justice Department turning a blind eye to torture authorized by officials in the Bush Administration. Memoranda argued that international humanitarian laws, such as the Geneva Conventions, did not apply to American interrogators overseas.

Let us end this review of confusement (a new word a friend coined), with these flashes of brilliance:

— A reader reports that the Army calls them “vertically deployed anti-personnel devices.”

You probably call them bombs.

— In St. Louis there is an oriental rug store that advertises “semi-antique” rugs.

TJ Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.