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Robert Andrew
 
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Doublespeak

31 December 2013, 08:50

Doublespeak is a term, thought to have first been coined by George Orwell, which deliberately distorts the meaning of words. The prime purpose of the practice of doublespeak is to make the truth sound more palatable by euphemism, distortion, ambiguity or obfuscation.

Doublespeak is language which pretends to communicate but doesn't. It is language which makes the bad seem good, the negative seem positive, the unpleasant seem attractive, or at least tolerable. It is language which avoids or denies responsibility; language which is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language which conceals or prevents thought.

Doublespeak was very popular with the apartheid regime, with terms like ‘good neighbourliness’, ‘separate development’, ‘plural society’, ‘homelands’ being used to describe the implementation of the apartheid system.  The words ‘terrorist’, ‘communist’ and ‘traitor’ were also forms of doublespeak to denote anyone who protested against the apartheid policies. There were also a whole host of government and military agencies whose doublespeak names did not truthfully indicate what their true function was, like BOSS (The Bureau for State Security), CCB (Civil Cooperation Bureau), Project Coast (chemical and biological warfare) and Project Duel (elimination of SWAPO prisoners of war), all of whose main functions were to disrupt anti-apartheid activities in South Africa and abroad by detaining or assassinating oppositional leaders and destroying ANC facilities.          

The USA Department of Defence has been well known for its use of doublespeak with euphemisms like ‘servicing the target’ (bombing), ‘force packages’ (warplanes), ‘rendition’ (the practice of sending a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect covertly to be interrogated in a country with less rigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners) and ‘waterboarding’ (a form of torture in which water is poured over a cloth covering the prisoner’s face and breathing passages). Extreme forms of torture are called ‘enhanced interrogation’. Military drones are called ‘unmanned aerial vehicle predator and reapers’. George W. Bush’s rush to attack Iraq after 9/11 was termed the ‘war on terrorism’, without any reference to the groups behind the WTC attacks being associated with Iraq. At this time, Bush reminded the soldiers and their families that the war in Iraq is “really about peace." (President George W. Bush, April 2003)

Our present South Africa government too has its very full share of doublespeak; in fact it is a feature of many government officials in their attempt to explain private expenditure, unlisted gifts and, dare we say it, bribes and corruption. Our former Communications Minister was a great exponent of doublespeak. Some examples: damage to a rented car amounting to R425 000 was written off because “nobody could be held responsible”, R325 000 for recruitment drives went down the drain because of “organisational realignment” and R1, 27 million on fraudulent international calls was lost as the “‘perpetrators could not be identified”[1].

There are wonderful examples of doublespeak in business and commerce, with some examples being “staff are our greatest assets” (truth: they’re the easiest cost to eliminate), “downsizing” or “re-engineering” (truth: laying off staff), “difficult exercise in labour relations” (truth: strikes), company ‘Vision and Mission Statements” (truth: looks good in the entrance foyer and impresses  clients), “we need a new paradigm” (truth: we actually don’t know what to do),  a “temporary cash flow” (truth: our cost management is poor),  “nonperforming assets” or “nonperforming credits” which are “rolled over” or “rescheduled” (truth: bad loans or bad debts) and “meaningful downturn in aggregate output” (truth: recession).

Enhanced language proficiency, greater general knowledge and critical thinking are probably the best ways to learn how to resist doublespeak. In many cases, we don’t know enough about the subject so are not able to recognise that the language being used is concealing, distorting or misleading the reality. There seems also to be a need to be aware of the peculiar ‘vulnerability’ of the linguistics of the English language.  Linguistically, words are not things, but verbal tokens or signs of things that should be related back to the things that they stand for so that they can be verified. Being sceptical about what is being spoken about, especially by politicians, can reveal if the language is being abused and, if so, we should not hesitate to question the speaker to try and reveal the reality.



[1]   IOL News: http://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/pule-s-wasteful-expenditure-slammed-1.1351134

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