"Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism . . . A great many words were euphemisms. Such words, for instance, as joycamp (forced-labor camp) or Minipax (Ministry of Peace, i.e., Ministry of War) meant almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean . . . The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness. For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgment should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets . . .
"Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning 'to quack like a duck.' " FROM "1984"
George Orwell was right.
And he was really right in Washington, the city that christened the MX the "Peacekeeper." Or how about "revenue enhancement," President Reagan's favorite name for a tax increase? Or the "district work period," which is congressional Newspeak for vacation? And "protective reaction"? That's what Richard Nixon called the invasion of Cambodia, where they didn't drop bombs but instead engaged in "air support." As a matter of fact, when did you last hear the word "bomb"? A country now explodes a "nuclear device," which is placed aboard a "re-entry vehicle," which is also an "RV"--not to be confused with a "recreational vehicle," which is a Winnebago. War itself is now a "nuclear exchange," which sounds like high-technology gift-giving.
And what about the president's "Task Force on Food Assistance"?
" 'Hunger' sounds so down," explains one White House official. "And there aren't too many people who have experienced it here recently--unless they're on the Deaver diet."
Orwell prophesied many frightening things in the world of Big Brother, but nothing has come more true than the corruption of language. And 1984 is still four months away. "The final consequence is that nothing will be called by its right name anymore," says John Simon, the critic who is also a member of the nation's language police. "But this does not mean extinction of the human race. What it does mean is that honesty in any kind of human life is going to be harder and harder to achieve."
Newspeak is not to be confused with doublespeak or gobbledygook, a tongue favored by many Washington bureaucrats but most fluently used by Alexander Haig, the former secretary of state. His testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the nuns killed in El Salvador won him the 1981 Doublespeak Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. ("This could have been at a very low level of both competence and motivation in the context of the issue itself," was what he said of the nuns.) And, of course, there are the famous Haigisms of "I'll have to caveat my response," "epistemologicallywise" and "posthostage-return attitude."
Newspeak, as Orwell defined it, came in three vocabularies: the A, B and C. The A vocabulary consisted of the words of everyday life--dog, cat, cockroach--but their numbers were small, and all ambiguities and shades of meaning had been purged from them. Adjectives were formed by adding "ful" to the noun, and adverbs by adding "wise." Thus, the word "well" became "goodwise." Any word could also be strengthened by the word "plus," or for greater emphasis, "doubleplus," as in "doublepluscold," which is what it is in January.
The C vocabulary was composed of technological terms, similar to the scientific terms used today, although they were stripped of undesirable meanings.
The B vocabulary was the most interesting, and is the one we usually think of as Newspeak. It consisted of words deliberately constructed for political purposes, designed to impose "a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them." They were always compound words, such as "Comintern" for "Communist International"--the latter two words suggesting, Orwell said, "red flags, barricades, Karl Marx." But "Comintern," Orwell wrote, "suggests merely a tightly knit organization and a well-defined body of doctrine . . . Comintern is a word that can be uttered almost without taking thought, whereas Communist International is a phrase over which one is obliged to linger at least momentarily."
In the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith worked in the Records Department, or "Recdep." The Fiction Department was called "Ficdep," and so on. Here in Washington, the secretary of defense is actually referred to as "SecDef," the deputy secretary of defense as "DepSecDef," and in a particularly wonderful example of Newspeak, one Pentagon official maintains that he frequently refers to the numerous deputy assistant secretaries of state by the title, "DepAss."
Making an exception for the compound-word requirement, you can find Newspeak words like "security assistance" for military aid, "incurring a deficit" for broke and, of course, "Washington representative" for lobbyist. That's a person who tries to get laws passed that will help the "special interests" (if you're against the Washington representative) or "the labor community" (if you're for the Washington representative). "Community" is a Newspeak word that travels well, as in the "business community," the "synfuels community" and, in a nice double whammy, the "intelligence community."
Edwin Newman, author of "Strictly Speaking" and another member of America's language police, particularly dislikes the word "funding."
"Why don't people say 'money'?" he asks. "There's something vulgar, or so it's thought, about using the term 'money.' When you say 'funding,' it implies there's some sort of process that's been gone through. This has led my wife to remark, 'Funding is the root of all evil.' "
Newspeak is also not to be confused with Congresspeak (i.e., "Will the gentleman yield" for "Shut up") or Briefingspeak, which is saying, as media spokesmen at the State Department frequently do, "The situation is confused."
"That means we don't know what the hell is going on," says a State Department official who wishes, not surprisingly, to remain anonymous.
But "moderately repressive regime," another State Department favorite, could qualify as Newspeak, as might military "exercises" and "freedom fighters," assuming you're on their side. If you're not, they're "guerrillas."
Then there's the "social safety net" for "the truly needy," and the "Aid to Families With Dependent Children" that is run by the Department of "Health and Human Services." Just what is a "human service"? It sounds vaguely religious, or maybe it's a maid. The word "welfare," as in the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare, is never, never used, although interestingly, "welfare" was once the euphemism for "relief"--as "depression" was for "recession." That was Herbert Hoover's idea; faced with the panic of 1929, he decided to call it by a word that implied a simple and temporary dip in the nation's economic state of mind. And Alfred Kahn, President Carter's inflation fighter, hated the word "recession" so much that he decreed, in one of the most brazen examples of Newspeak, that he would forever refer to it as a "banana." As in: "Between 1973 and 1975 we had the deepest banana that we had in 35 years."
Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.), a congressional language watcher who says his "crying hope is that someday 'hope' will be returned as a verb and 'hopefully' as an adverb," particularly likes "executive session," which on Capitol Hill means nobody gets into the meeting but the elected politicians. Jacobs, who was reached in Indianapolis during his "district work period" ("It would be kind of you to remember that you did find me in my district," he says), also surmises that "I suppose you could say that the 'Washington work period' is a euphemism, too."
There's also "pro-life" and "pro-choice." Everybody knows pro-life means anti-abortion, but pro-life sounds so much nicer. Who isn't pro-life? Consider the alternative. The pro-abortion people, not eager to use a radioactive word like abortion, have jumped right in. What's their alternative? "Pro-repression"? In fact, the two sides have made it possible to be "pro-life" and "pro-choice" simultaneously.
Then there's "poorly buffered precipitation" for acid rain. And don't forget the increasingly popular adjective "press available," which sounds like a politician who is ready for dry cleaning. The noun is "press availability," a close cousin to "photo opportunity" and "radio actuality."
Roger Molander, the founder of Ground Zero, a group devoted to "public education" about the dangers of nuclear war, argues that even the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War I is Newspeak because "it sounds like they just went off and had an adventure." Molander also gets irked over "countervalue attack," which means that one side in a nuclear war retaliates by bombing things of value--i.e., people and cities. If they bomb just the weapons, it's a "counterforce attack."
So does all this mean that Newspeak and Orwell's 1984 are almost upon us? Not exactly, says Richard Mitchell, founder of The Underground Grammarian and an English professor at Glassboro State College in Glassboro, N.J. He's speaking at two Orwell festivals this year.
"Newspeak is most effective when we don't notice it," he says. "We see things like the Peacekeeper, and say, 'Ha, ha, ha, there they go again.' " Mitchell believes that a word like "perception" is much more dangerous, explaining:
"Suppose you make some noise about something that I'm doing that you hate. Now, I'm upset that you're making noise, and let's say I'm the secretary of state. Do I ask myself, 'Gee, am I doing the right thing?' Not anymore. Because I have a new concept. The problem is in your perception of what I'm doing."
In fact, Newspeak may create more cynicism than compliance, particularly when a nuclear reactor meltdown becomes a "superprompt critical disassembly" or when Reagan's investigation into who took Carter's debate briefing papers turns into a "vigorous monitoring."
In Orwell's 1984, he would have been praised as a "doubleplusgood duckspeaker."