The Language of Doublespeak


There is a new language which over the years has stealthily embedded itself into our lives. Orwellian in nature and effect, it has become the stock and trade of most of our political leaders. It is a language in which one can speak a thousand words and still say nothing. A language which defies all the rules and regulations of direct communication by inventing many of its own. It creates new words and meanings for old things, things which we had always assumed were basic rights. It manipulates meaning and deliberately conceals truth.

One of the prime examples where this new language is used is in war and its politics, and most notably in Iraq. In the early nineties during the first Iraq war after the killing of five hundred civilians sheltering in a milk factory, we were given two new words to replace four old ones. The words ‘collateral damage’ replaced ‘killing of innocent civilians’ and since then literally thousands if not millions of lives have been snuffed out with hardly a whimper from anyone because the new words had the effect of hiding the actual meaning of the old ones. In this new language it seems being innocent and being civilian is no longer a right.

With this new language the replacing of a few words allows so called civilised states to kill innocent civilians in total contravention of the internationally agreed Geneva Convention which lists such actions as war crimes. It does so because this new language deliberately has no real meaning and hides the truth. It is easier to say ‘Unfortunately we had some collateral damage’ than to report you have just slaughtered five hundred innocent men, women, and children.

With this new language you also have the absolute power to pick up anyone, anywhere in the world, torture them in horrific ways, and should you wish, kill them. This is made possible because the old word ‘torture’ has been replaced with the new tamer word ‘rendition’ which somehow makes the crimes of state sponsored murder and torture more acceptable.

In the hallowed halls of Westminster it allows you to engineer a war that you will never have to fire a shot in. It allows you to say with great gravity at a soldier’s graveside that sacrifices must be made in war, before flying off to a multi-million pound holiday residence in sunnier climes. And closer to home, it allows you to be neutral, be against the war, and still allow US troops to pour through Shannon to fight in that same war.

And should we be worried about this new language, this new doublespeak? Should we even care? The answer to both those questions is yes. Language and the meaning of the words we use was not something we humans invented overnight. Our language and communications skills have developed and evolved over millions of years. This was done for good reasons, chief among them being clarity, meaning, and understanding. As humans we stand above the animals because of our ability to communicate effectively and intelligently with each other. The meaning of the words we use is crucial to this. Calling the killing of innocent civilians ‘Collateral Damage’ divorces us from the bloody reality of what that actually means, severed limbs, bloodied corpses, and dead children. It allows governments to carry out appalling atrocities in our name without fearing the anger and disgust of public opinion. To manipulate words is to manipulate truth. That is a dangerous game and as history has taught us, one which can have terrible consequences as we saw when Hitler’s Nazis took it to a different level by replacing the word ‘Genocide’ with ‘Final Solution’. The result was the horrific and systematic slaughter of over six million people in death camps like Auschwitz.

That is a lesson we forget at our peril.

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About Ronan Gallagher

Writer and Film-maker living and working in Leitrim in the North West of Ireland. View all posts by Ronan Gallagher

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