OnWords: Newspeak

Jun 13, 2017

George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 has been flying off the shelves recently, perhaps in response to the growing number of authoritarian leaders across the globe.

Orwell’s greatest contribution for understanding how tyranny works may not be from what happens in the book, but from what it says about the power of language. In a famous and much anthologized appendix to 1984, Orwell describes how “Newspeak” developed under the tyrannical rule of Big Brother. Newspeak was meant to completely replace English with a set of words that made thinking unauthorized thoughts all but impossible. All instances of the word “free” that implied political liberty, for example, were eliminated. Only usages such as “my dog is free of fleas” would be allowed.

The goal was to achieve “ducktalk,” speech so devoid of meaning that it resembled the quacking of a duck. Framed this way, our current interest in 1984 may represent a worry about language and what it can mean.

If we eliminate references to climate change from government websites, how will we have the words to discuss the problem? If we say that the clouds parted and the sun started shining, can we ever admit it rained? What exactly constitutes a wall? If affordable and available heath care means affordable to few and available to fewer, can we even conceive of universal coverage?

Even words like “great,” “pathetic,” and “guarantee” are under question these days. As our language goes, then, so go our minds, and so goes the soul of the nation as a whole.