Doublespeak (Rebel Reads)

Image of Doublespeak (Rebel Reads)
Release Date: 
January 12, 2016
IG Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“What is missing from Doublespeak, what would have made it worthwhile today, would be a reworking to compare doublespeak . . . from the 1980s to today.”

In this reprint of the 1989 edition, doublespeak is the use of language to shift responsibility. Because the listener may not know the speaker’s intent, doublespeak becomes grey zone between iffy truth and outright lie. What author William Lutz calls doublespeak, Steven Colbert calls “truthiness.”

Lutz categorizes the varieties of doublespeak into euphemism, jargon, gobbledygook, and inflated language. Euphemism is intended to save feelings, for example saying, “passed away” for “dead.” Jargon is verbal shorthand used by specialists and crosses into doublespeak when the intent is not to express but to impress. Gobbledygook or “bureaucratese” is the piling on of words intending to confuse, while inflated language is designed to make everyday things sound impressive and prevalent in job titles. For example, janitors are now called custodians, garbage men are sanitation engineers, and guards in stores, loss prevention specialists.

Doublespeak is not new; truthiness is part of human nature. Lutz provides historical examples of doublespeak, quoting from the ancient historian Tacitus about the Romans, ”…and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” Lutz also quotes from the novelist George Orwell. In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes, “[the] great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” and from Orwell’s novel 1984, is the perhaps the gold standard in doublespeak, “War is peace.”

Doublespeak is typically associated with lawyers. For one example, in 1978 when an airline profited from an airplane crash through an insurance payout, its annual stockholder report identified the crash as $1.7 million acquired through “involuntary conversion of a 727.” Here “Involuntary conversion” is lawyer-speak for loss or destruction of property, and used to hide the fact that the crash generated a profit. The reader might be reminded of Milo Minderbinder in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and realize the fictional character has a real-life counterpart.

Besides lawyers, government representatives have been known for their occasional outbursts of doublespeak, perhaps from the joke, “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” And Lutz provides many examples.

In 1947, the U.S. Department of War was renamed the Department of Defense, and Lutz explains that while using tax dollars for war may have its detractors, it is more difficult to deny spending tax dollars on defense. In another example (and by checking by Wikipedia, what was true back then is still true today), a significant portion of the Department of Energy’s budget (over 40%), is set aside for Nuclear Security Administration, that is, the Department of Energy’s job is to improve security through military applications of nuclear energy (i.e. weapons research), and this is a separate budget item apart from defense.

In 1984 the U.S. State Department stopped using the word “killing” in its annual report on the status of human rights and replaced it with “unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life,” done to avoid mentioning killings by countries certified by the U.S. as respectful to human rights. (More recently, The New York Times did doublespeak when it refused to call torture, torture.)

A chapter of Doublespeak is devoted to food labeling. Liquors, wines, and beer do not need to list their ingredients. This was true in 1989 and still true today. Again true today is that any number of food-related words can have a legal meaning opposed to their dictionary (and commonly believed) definition. Producers of good for supermarkets can arbitrarily label food as “lean,” “lite,”, “enriched,” “fortified,” “natural,” “diet,” “low calorie,” “sugar free,” and “sugarless.” True too is that chicken chilled to 28 degrees counts as fresh and not frozen, which explains the random chunks of ice stuck inside your “unfrozen” trays of supermarket chicken.

Lutz provides a section on doublespeak in advertising. Again, as this is a reprint, the examples are all from the 1970s and 1980s, which may have the potential to induce nostalgia in today’s readers. This reviewer wonders what is it with advertising that it has such a hold on us, that we remember and cherish TV commercials that we saw as children decades ago? Doublespeak reflects the trends and fashions—as a snapshot in time, as a snapshot of culture, and as memories when we were young. Oh well, 70s and 80s advertising glorified cigarette smoking, polyester leisure suits, and disco.

To no surprise what was considered true decades ago might not be considered true today, as what is modern quickly become “old fashioned.” The “then” William Lutz decries the decline of testing in K–12 education from the time of his youth; however, if asked today, the now William Lutz might now decry the core, claiming today’s schools test too much.

Lutz provides many examples of doublespeak in business with quotes from annual corporate reports. Although 20 years have passed, many of the corporate-speak phrases would still be familiar today. Little if anything has changed. Corporations were (and still are) never “in the red,” corporations just experience “negative cash flow” and “negative economic growth.” And it is still common refrain to exclaim “another good year” despite incurring losses, even to the extent of losing all in bankruptcy. Then as now employees can be “restructured,” “made redundant,” and “downsized” instead of “laid off.” Just how far back in time does one have to search for the first use of “non performing asset” for of “bad debt”? Is any of this lying? No, doublespeak is merely “strategic misrepresentation.”

The doublespeak from auto manufacturers got so bad that in 1982 a law actually was passed that recommended auto manufacturers use clear language, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration even offered to work with automakers to “improve their writing skills.” However, six years later when confusing language continued to be generated, one automaker defended itself by claiming federal regulations forced them into confusing wording. Perhaps this is so. Lutz identifies the law case that has settled the issue of follow-through of politician’s promises, once and for all. In 1914 in New York a judicial court ruled that politicians do not have to make good on their promises made during campaigning once they enter office—basically enshrining the use of strategic misrepresentation into law.

Lutz provides even more examples of doublespeak from politicians and government agencies, quoting Senator Orrin Hatch, who is still a senator today. In 1988 Senator Hatch said, “Capital punishment is our society’s recognition of the sanctity of human life.” (This reviewer believes that times have changed, if only a little bit. Drugs used to kill in capital punishment cases have been increasingly difficult to acquire by prisons, in passive resistance by drug manufacturers who refuse to sell the drugs to them.)

Lutz for the most part skips the abundant doublespeak of government officials during the 70s from President Nixon and Vietnam (perhaps this would have been overwhelming). Instead he provides most examples from the 80s relaying the doublespeak on the USS Vincennes’ shoot-down of Iran’s civilian flight 655, from Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, and the many public statements of Secretaries of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci.

Lutz provides examples of doublespeak in U.S. Supreme Court decisions; doublespeak in reports from the CIA to Congress; doublespeak from NASA during investigation of the Challenger disaster; doublespeak from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). And there’s doublespeak from U.S. government agencies on trade, labor, taxes, education, and health. Lutz gives special attention paid to the doublespeak of the U.S. military. The U.S. government had an actual intent toward reform through eliminating doublespeak from contracting process with the 1986 DOD Contract Simplification Test Program. To no one’s surprise, the test program did not work. (Ah, well.)

Lutz provides examples of doublespeak from other nations including Canada, the UK, and France. But in contrast with “first world” nations, Lutz points out that there has been blazingly clear language issued by dictators in the Soviet Union, Chile Haiti, Brazil, and the Middle East. The examples include sharply worded threats of harm dictators intend to inflict on their citizens if they do not do as they are told.

All in all, Doublespeak has not aged well. As this book as a reprint from 1989 it is frozen in time with most examples from the 1970s and 1980s. What is missing from Doublespeak, what would have made it worthwhile today, would be a reworking to compare doublespeak (and the changes in culture reflected by changes in doublespeak) from the 1980s to today. This reworking should also be more than a listing of examples, to include an analysis of the psychology of lying, the politics of dissent, and modern “culture jamming.” And perhaps this review will encourage William Lutz or another author to write that book.