Doublespeak; Care in language use, a defense against deception
Ithaca, New York — ''Language isn't the invention of human beings to lie, deceive, mislead, and manipulate,'' says William D. Lutz, chairman of the Committee on Public Doublespeak of the National Council of Teachers of English and also chairman of the English Department at Rutgers University.
''The purpose of language is to communicate the truth and to facilitate social groups getting together,'' Dr. Lutz said. ''The doublespeak committee was formed to combat the use of public language by increasing people's awareness of what is good, clear, solid use of language and what is not.''
The committee does more than help students and the general public recognize what doublespeak is; it dramatizes that clarity of expression reflects clarity of thought.
''We live in a democracy, and good, clear thought, good clear language, is important to a democracy where all citizens must decide on the public issues facing the country,'' Dr. Lutz said. ''If these public issues are not discussed and debated rationally, using good clear language, then we all suffer. We're not merely teaching academic skills here, but skills that people need to survive in society as its citizens and as consumers. What we're teaching is survival skills.''
Language that misleads, distorts, mischaracterizes, dishonestly persuades, or otherwise manipulates appears in politics, business, sports, education, and entertainment. It's in radio spots assuring us that our ''insurance professional'' (whose real business is to sell us insurance) can analyze our every insurance need; pudding packages labeled LEMON, with fumaric and acipic acid to impart lemon flavor instead of lemon itself; fast-food appeals to hefty appetites with a quarter-pounder indicating raw meat weight rather than what the customer is served; or the defense secretary's assurance that defense is ''the most important social welfare program for which the federal government must be responsible.''
It was out of concern for the growing misuse of language by those in public places that the English teachers' group formed the doublespeak committee in 1974 . The committee began its work by coining the word ''doublespeak'' from a combination of the concepts of ''newspeak'' and ''doublethink'' in George Orwell's novel ''1984.'' Recent dictionaries have defined it as a blanket term for confusing or deceptive language. Doublespeak is not lying, nor is it merely sloppy language; it is the intentional use of euphemisms, synonyms, jargon, and vagueness which pretends to communicate but really does not, or which implies the opposite of what it would appear to be communicating.
''People can easily learn to see through doublespeak once they've become aware of it, however,'' William Lutz says. To this end the committee has produced two books, publishes a quarterly review, and gives two awards annually to people who exemplify both the worst and the best in the public use of language.
''Since we are a teachers' organization, our materials are designed for classroom use, but they can be adapted easily by parents for use with children at home,'' Dr. Lutz assured me.
The books, ''Language and Public Policy'' and ''Teaching About Doublespeak,'' contain the theoretical framework for recognizing doublespeak as well as detailed lesson plans and discussion outlines. The Quarterly Review of Doublespeak contains information about new resources available to teachers and short articles on current examples of doublespeak in advertising, government documents, business memorandums, campaign rhetoric, and elsewhere.
The awards were created to attract public attention, according to Lutz. The week before Thanksgiving the committee's board of directors announces the recipients of the annual Doublespeak Award and of the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language.
Although doublespeak can be found everywhere, the Doublespeak Award is usually given to business or political leaders because of the powerful influence of their use of language on society and, consequently, on our individual lives.
The Orwell Award, on the other hand, recognizes work that promotes clear, solid, accurate communication. Although films, television programs, and other art forms have been nominated, the committee favors work that is easily accessible to classroom teachers.