Doublespeak is deliberately distorting language. The term “doublespeak” derives from two concepts in George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell, 1949/2021).
Examples of doublespeak include use of euphemisms, jargon, vagueness, intentional omission, misdirection, and idioms in order to obscure the truth.
The terms “doublethink” and “Newspeak” frequently occur in the novel, but “doublespeak” does not. Similarities can also be seen in Orwell’s classic essay Politics and the English Language (Kehl & Livingston, 1999), which discusses the distortion tactics used for political purposes.
Doublespeak is the language that deliberately distorts, disguises, obscures, hides, or reverses the meaning of words.
Doublespeak can take the form of euphemisms, such as “servicing the target” for bombings, in which case it is often used to make the truth seem more acceptable.
It may also refer to intentional ambiguity or inversion of meanings. In the latter case, doublespeak is used to hide the truth or distort it.
Here’s how George Orwell describes political speech in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness… the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. Where there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms…” (Orwell, 1949/2021, p. 163)
This is very close to the contemporary understanding of doublespeak. According to some scholars, doublespeak is the domain of lies.
Doublespeak implies the shaping and selection of facts to fit a specific agenda and ignoring the facts that do not fit the narrative (Herman, 1992, p. 3).
The process can be either conscious or unconscious. As Orwell notes, one may tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing them. One may forget all the inconvenient facts.
There is even an ironic tribute for public speakers who use deceptive or evasive language called the doublespeak award. It has been issued by the National Council of Teachers of English since 1974 (Doublespeak Award, n.d.). The following examples are mostly based on previous awards (Walters, n.d.).
Below are some examples of well-known instances of doublespeak used in order to obscure the truth:
- Softening the grades: Teachers who refuse to say on reports that a child has done poorly, but instead say vague phrases like “needs improvement” and “has been distracted.”
- Picking your data: Scientists and politicians cherry-picking data that supports their arguments then using vague language related to their self-selected data to avoid actually lying.
- Bombing vs air support: David H. E. Opfer, the US Air Force press officer calling bombing raids in Southeast Asia “air support.”
- Confusing jargon: The US State Department appointing a consumer affairs coordinator to “review existing mechanisms of consumer input, thruput, and output, and seek ways of improving these linkages via the ‘consumer communication channel.'”
- ‘Efficient’ nukes: The Pentagon and the Energy Research and Development Administration stating that an efficient nuclear bomb is one that “eliminates an enemy with minimal damage to friendly territory.”
- CIA informants as ‘academics’: Earl Clinton Bolton in his CIA memo detailing how academics assisting the CIA should behave when being questioned, including by explaining their relationship with the CIA “as a contribution to proper academic goals” and that any affiliation with the CIA is protected under “academic freedom” and “privilege and tenure”.
- Explosions as ‘energetic disassembly’: The nuclear power industry inventing a number of jargon terms and euphemisms before, during, and after the Three Mile Island accident, including referring to an explosion as “energetic disassembly”, fire as “rapid oxidation”, and a reactor accident as an “event”, an “abnormal evolution”, a “normal aberration”, or a “plant transient”.
- Political doublespeak: The Republican National Committee credited Ronald Reagan for a cost-of-living increase in Social Security that originated from a law that passed before he took office.
- Missile as ‘peacekeeper’: Ronald Reagan calling the MX intercontinental ballistic missile the “Peacekeeper”, and condemning countries that promote violence and terrorism in other countries while providing covert aid to the Contras in Nicaragua.
- Euphemisms: The US State Department using “unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life” as a euphemism for “killing”, and referring to arrests made after the U.S. invasion of Grenada as “detainments”.
- Coffins as ‘crew transfer containers’: Officials of NASA, Thiokol, and Rockwell International in the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster referred to the explosion as an “anomaly”, the astronauts’ bodies as “recovered components”, and the astronauts’ coffins as “crew transfer containers”.
- Avoiding the question: Oliver North and John Poindexter referring to profits made from the Iran–Contra affair as “residuals” and “diversions” and subtly acknowledging responsibility for selling weapons but refusing to directly state said responsibility.
- Omissions and contradictions: Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, Admiral William J. Crowe, and Rear Admiral William Fogarty making comments filled with omissions, contradictions, misdirections, and distortions that downplayed the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655.
- Clean versus treated environment: The ExxonMobil Corporation referred to about 35 miles of Alaskan shoreline with oil on them as “environmentally clean” and “environmentally stabilized”, then using “treated” in place of “clean” and “stabilized” after reports were made of the oil’s presence.
- Definitely not an invasion: George H. W. Bush making comments that contradicted his actions, including saying taxes wouldn’t be raised then raising taxes, saying that women shouldn’t have to worry about getting a job after maternity leave then vetoing the Parental and Medical Leave bill, and for creating numerous terms to avoid using the word “invasion” when talking about the US invasion of Panama.
- Fog of war: US Department of Defense creating numerous euphemisms during the Gulf War to obscure the realities of war, including referring to bombing attacks as “efforts”, bombing missions as “visiting a site”, and warplanes as “weapons systems” or “force packages”.
- Political exaggeration: George H. W. Bush stating that the Gulf War would reduce the proliferation of arms internationally then ending the U.S. policy of not giving arms to other countries, for saying that diverting funds from public schools to private schools gave parents more “choice” as to where they send their children to school, and for exaggerating tax increases that occurred in Arkansas during Bill Clinton’s governorship.
- Truth distortion: Rush Limbaugh, for distorting the truth dozens of times in nearly 1,000 media outlets nationwide, including saying that long lines at gas pumps in the 1970s were attributable to foreign oil powers not fearing Jimmy Carter, even though these lines were most severe before Jimmy Carter became or ran for president.
- Bipartisan obfuscation: Bill Clinton, Trent Lott, and Newt Gingrich, for engaging in bipartisan deceit about a budget deal that they claimed would produce balanced budgets, even though it raised spending and cut taxes.
- Wrongful justification of war: Many believe that George W. Bush lied about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and used those lies as justification for going to war.
- Editing the science: Philip A. Cooney editing scientific reports to deceive the public about the nature of global warming and climate change and of the Bush Administration’s negligence in dealing with these issues.
In 2012 the American Petroleum Institute was given the Doublespeak Award for its public statements regarding regulation.
On April 24, 2012, API’s Chief Economist John Felmy told reporters that if America’s oil and natural gas industry reports earnings, then jobs are being created.
He said raising taxes on the industry would hurt both jobs and revenue. The award was given for neglecting to mention environmental factors, factors that determine the price of gas and oil, and so on.
The Regan administration’s interference in Central American elections – with the goal of promoting capitalism – often engaged in doublespeak about democratic elections, depending on who they wanted to win.
They would publicly dispute the democratic election of socialists and support the democratic election of capitalists, using obfuscating language designed to ensure their own perspective seemed reasonable.
According to State Secretary George Shultz, what is important in an electoral process is not just the moment when people vote but also the preliminary aspects of an election.
The Sandinista government’s censorship of the Nicaraguan paper La Prensa was therefore a concern.
On the other hand, in El Salvador’s elections of 1982 and 1984, held under US sponsorship to legitimate de facto military rule, the Reagan administration paid no attention to preliminary aspects of the election, being completely satisfied with a successful display at the moment when people vote.
The destruction of two independent newspapers in San Salvador some years later was not mentioned by US officials (Herman, 1992, p. 4).
In 2005 Philip A. Cooney was given the Doublespeak Award for “his editing of scientific reports.”
Using well-placed modifiers and hedges, Cooney supported the Bush administration’s inaction and undermined international attempts to improve global warming.
Of course, politicians do this all the time. They will boost phrases that support their positions and hide, obfuscate, or misdirect from positions that do not support their positions.
In 1991 the US Department of Defense received the Doublespeak award for the language used to make the realities of the war in the Persian Gulf sound more acceptable.
Massive bombing attacks were called “efforts”; warplanes were called “weapons systems” or “force packages”; a bombing mission was called “visiting a site.”
We see this during all wars. Generally, each party will conceal their losses and emphasize the losses of their opponents. Furthermore, they will release strategic information that redirects the enemy so no one knows what’s going on – we call this ‘the fog of war’.
Doublespeak is the language that deliberately distorts, disguises, obscures, hides, or reverses the meaning of words. It is most often used for political purposes. The term has its roots in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four but wasn’t coined by him. Understanding what doublespeak is helps us detect it and avoid falling victim to deliberately misleading language.
Doublespeak Award. (n.d.). NCTE. Retrieved November 12, 2022, from https://ncte.org/awards/doublespeak-award/
Herman, E. S. (1992). Beyond Hypocrisy: Decoding the News in an Age of Propaganda : Including A Doublespeak Dictionary for the 1990s. South End Press.
Kehl, D. G., & Livingston, H. (1999). Doublespeak Detection for the English Classroom. The English Journal, 88(6), 77–82. https://doi.org/10.2307/822191
Orwell, G. (2021). 1984. Random House UK. (Original work published 1949)
Walters, L. (n.d.). Past Recipients of the NCTE Doublespeak Award. 11.