The Language of Doublespeak

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

The toolbox of the writer contains one major item: language. I respect the power of language and despise the devices of trickery involving its usage.

Doublespeak in particular represents the language of subterfuge. It hides, covers, and ignores the truth. Doublespeak rests in the toolbox of politicians, CEOs, and used car salesmen.

However, the military remains the winner of my doublespeak award, and none more false, deceiving, and confusing than the term “friendly fire.”

When used to describe the cause of death of a soldier, does it make the death any more acceptable than if it had been from enemy fire? The term “friendly fire” doesn’t even deserve recognition as an oxymoron. An oxymoron joins two opposites, which make a certain kind of sense, such as the term “jumbo shrimp.”

However, there is nothing friendly about the fire from a gun. If somehow the military hopes to soften the figures of war casualties by categorizing a death in this way, we must remain vigilant in not falling prey to gullibility. Friendly fire or not, in a war zone, it is still a casualty of war if those bullets hit a soldier.

Doublespeak deceives. When the military releases information to the press or when politicians make speeches, then the press — the Fourth Estate — must be vigilant as well. When we use benign language applied to horrific concepts, we bury our minds to atrocities.

For example, during Sudan’s horrific civil war, the deaths were referred to as “ethnic cleansing.” The perception is not of death but of purity and innocence. Using the word “genocide,” which is the dirty word for the euphemism, might have woken us up to the fact that we as a country allowed the killings of mothers and children to occur without our intervention.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) gives out the Doublespeak Award each year. The award, established in 1972, is “an ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered. In 2004, they recognized Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for describing the torture at Abu Ghraib as “the excesses of human nature that humanity suffers.” That does sound a whole lot better than “the U.S. soldiers tortured and beat prisoners.” This is not the first time the Pentagon received recognition for its doublespeak. Instead of using the term “body bags” during the Gulf War it was changed to “human remains pouches” to the current phrase, “transfer tubes.”

The NCTE’s 2012 award is still open for nominations until September 15, 2012. The nominations must have appeared or been published between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012.

This organization also gives out the Orwell Award each year to honor an “author, editor, or producer of a print or non-print work that contributes to honesty and clarity in public language.” The deadline and nomination periods are the same.

Michael Pollen received the 2010 Orwell Award for his book In Defense of Food. The NCTE cited him for doing the “most to raise public awareness about the environmental and ethical impacts of food choices.”

I urge us all to question what we read and hear. In this year of the politically charged doublespeak of partisan politics, we need to sift through the flotsam and jetsam of language to make an informed choice about who leads us into the next four years. They all use it; it’s up to us to lift the curtain on the fancy phrases meant to mask either lack of ideas or less than desirable actions.


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