The latest environmental disaster in California, with a cracked pipe pouring tens of thousands of gallons of oil into the Pacific got me thinking about the many euphemisms employed to mask or limit the truth. The oil is a “spill,” like you’ve just knocked over a glass of milk. And we had the Gulf of Mexico oil “spill,” which caused millions of dollars in damage.
In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote how obfuscatory political language is designed “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”
Later in his brilliant classic book “1984,” he wrote about newspeak, the official language of control of Oceania, which is a political language designed to narrow the range of thinking among the citizenry to the point that they lack the terms to think for themselves.
He also described doublethink, which employed mutually contradictory terms as a means of control. Freedom was defined as slavery and slavery was freedom. War is Peace was a common slogan, the Ministry of Peace actually pursued war, and the Ministry of Love dealt with law and order (torture and brainwashing).
His prescient concepts manifest today in the myriad ways governments, politicians, corporations etc. employ euphemisms to mask the truth.
American linguist Dr. William Lutz studied how language is abused by governments and industries. He called doublespeak, a “language designed to evade responsibility, to make the unpleasant appear pleasant. Language designed to mislead while pretending it doesn’t.”
It’s so blatant when it comes to war. The bombing of Iraq was jingoistically labeled “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” “Smart bombs” sound a lot less destructive than bombs that kill many, as with “surgical strikes” which sounds like it’s a healthy removal of something noxious. We have the famous “collateral damage,” which is a nice way of saying we killed innocent civilians. “Friendly fire”? Oops we killed our own. And the infamous “enhanced interrogation” sounds so much more palatable than torture.
In the environmental world we’ve seen doublespeak programs like the Clear Skies Initiative which weakened the Clean Air Act. We have a dirty fossil fuel labeled “clean coal.” Canada’s oil sands industry produces “ethical oil.”
In the fishing industry “bycatch” is a polite way of describing all of the fish and dolphins swept up in industrial fishing nets that aren’t intended to be caught. Whales killed by Japan and Iceland are termed “research whaling.”
Those massive toxic storage dumps of pig shit in the South are politely referred to as “lagoons.” And you’ve got to love “rapid oxidation,” i.e a fire, used in reports by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency.
Every year the National Council of Teachers of English hands out the Doublespeak Award as an, “ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.”
There was no winner in 2014, but in 2013, Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel was bestowed with the dubious honor for creating a formula to calculate “school utilization.” Schools with smaller classroom sizes would be labeled as “underutilized” and be closed down, while schools with larger classroom sizes would be labeled as properly “utilized.” Which of course flies in the face of evidence that students perform better in smaller classrooms.