Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Doublespeak: the corruption of language and mind

In 1946, George Orwell* wrote that the language of politics "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Political language, he said, was expressed in vague or meaningless words because it was intended to hide the truth rather than express it. Welcome to doublespeak: language that pretends to communicate by hiding its intentions behind euphemisms and convoluted phrases.  Doublespeak makes the bad seem good and the negative appear positive and limits and corrupts thought**.

Today it has infiltrated many areas of our lives: politics, business, advertising, and especially the military.

Armies don’t kill; they pacify, neutralise, disable, deactivate or eliminate assets.

Body bags (containing the remains of dead US soldiers) are now called transfer tubes.

Innocent civilians killed in conflict are collateral damage.  A bomb is a vertically deployed anti-personnel device and laying down a carpet (Fr. poser une moquette) is a both an activity done by a carpet layer and a euphemism for carpet bombing or saturation bombing. It’s also known as target servicing, which sounds like a business activity you would read about on this website. However, it is best known by its B grade bombastic blockbuster title, shock and awe (soon-to-be starring Tom Cruise).

Torture, according to the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is the excesses of human nature that humanity suffers. Mr Rumsfeld admitted he may have inadvertently disclosed incorrect information, but he didn’t lie.

Constructive destruction is also known as regime change which is also known as an unprovoked military attack.

Intelligence is spying and pre-hostility is the time before the war, sometimes called peacetime. In 1971 the Pentagon asked for funding for an enhanced radiation device, a term used to disguise its real meaning: a neutron bomb.

Ethnic cleansing is a cleaner term than genocide.

Was it the coalition of the willing or the coalition of coerced?

Business is also attracted to doublespeak.  A volume-related production scheduling adjustment by US car giant General Motors was actually the closure of an entire factory.

Airplanes don’t crash. They have uncontrolled contact with the ground.

Patients don’t die during operations. They have a diagnostic misadventure of a high magnitude.

Unemployment in Europe is on the rise, but no-one gets fired or sacked. The company is right-sizing, re-layering, down-sizing, re-engineering or having a workforce imbalance correction and you personally are decruited, let go, laid-off or offered career alternative enhancement or early retirement so you can"pursue other interests" and "spend more time with the family”.

Job flexibility often means no contract and little or no job security. Reducing costs mean cutting jobs and salaries.

Banks don't have bad loans or bad debts; they have non-performing assets which are rolled over or rescheduled.

Do you use a state-of-the-art sound-processing tool to listen to music? Yes, I use earphones also.

Janitors or caretakers are custodial engineers, car mechanics are automotive internists, elevator operators are members of the vertical transportation corps, and Migros supermarket cashiers are career associate scanning professionals.

Cows, chickens, sheep are now called grain-consuming units by the US Department of Agriculture. If you are not a vegetarian, you are a carnivorous biped consumer of grain-consuming units. Bon appétit!

*George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, introduced the term doublethink and newspeak: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, which later evolved into doublespeak.

**William Lutz’s book, Doublespeak, published in 1990 examines the manipulation of language. You can read an extract here.

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