Today is the birthday of linguist William D. Lutz, who was born in Wisconsin in 1940. Lutz has dedicated his life to combating doublespeak, language that is ambiguous or intentionally obscure or distorted. Lutz defines doublespeak as,
. . . language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. . . . It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it. . . .
In his 1989 book Doublespeak, Lutz defines four categories of doublespeak, to illustrate how it is “designed to alter our perception of reality and corrupt our thinking.”
The first kind is euphemism, where “an inoffensive or positive word or phrase [is] used to avoid a harsh, unpleasant, or distasteful reality.” Certainly we use euphemisms appropriately when we are sensitive to the connotations of words and to the sensitivity of others. For example, instead of saying, “I’m sorry your father is dead,” we say, “I’m sorry your father passed away.” When euphemisms are used to intentionally mislead, however, they are classified as doublespeak. For example, in 1984 the U.S. State Department wanted to avoid any discussion of government-sanctioned “killings” in its annual report on human rights, so it substituted the euphemistic phrase “unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life.”
The second kind of doublespeak is jargon, “the specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group, such as doctors, lawyers [or] engineers . . .“ Jargon is useful and appropriate as a kind of verbal shorthand when used among the members of a profession. However, it is inappropriate when it is “used not to express but impress” or when it is used to hide rather than reveal the truth. For example, when a National Airlines 727 crashed in 1978, killing three passengers, the airline covered up the tragedy with jargon, calling it an “involuntary conversion of a 727.”
The third kind of doublespeak is gobbledygook or bureaucratese, “piling on words, or overwhelming the audience with words, the bigger the words and the longer the sentences the better.” One example of this comes from Jesse Moore, a NASA official, who said the following when he was asked to assess the shuttle program after the Challenger disaster in 1986:
I think our performance in terms of the liftoff performance and in terms of the orbital performance, we knew more about the envelope we were operating under, and we have been pretty accurately staying in that. And so I would say the performance has not by design drastically improved. I think we have been able to characterize the performance more as a function of our launch experience as opposed to it improving as a function of time.
The fourth kind of doublespeak is inflated language, using words “to make the ordinary seem extraordinary; to make everyday things seem impressive . . . .” Inflated language is especially prevalent in the language of advertising. At Starbucks, for example, you can’t buy a small, medium, or large coffee; instead, to make these common categories sound more impressive they are called tall, grande, venti, and trenta. Likewise car dealerships do not sell “used cars”; instead, these cars are called “certified pre-owned automobiles” (1).
Today’s Challenge: Add Some Air to Your Ad
How do companies use language to inflate claims about the value of their products? Sometimes products contain disclaimers, warning consumers about the dangers of using them improperly. More and more, however, companies are writing “claimers,” using inflated language and hyperbole to tout the amazing ways in which their product will transform the life of the purchaser. Have some fun with doublespeak by writing an advertisement for a product using exaggerated, inflated language to make the product seem too good to be true. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day: The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When 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, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. . . . Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. -George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”
1-Lutz, William. Doublespeak. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1989.