As if life weren’t complicated enough with various demands on our time, such as from social media and the web, we must also contend with “doublespeak”, the perpetual mind-bender and distortion artist influencing what we hear and read. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “deliberately euphemistic, ambiguous, or obscure language”, while the Merriam-Webster dictionary identifies it as “language that can be understood in more than one way and that is used to trick or deceive people”.
Doublespeak was coined on the heels of George Orwell’s fiction (recall 1984), but the author did not directly use the word. He referred to the largely similar concepts of “doubletalk” and “newspeak”. His now famous catchlines, “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength”, are prime examples. Preceding these, the insidious reality of how language can distort meaning took form in the Nazi slogan, “Arbeit Macht Frei” [Work sets you free]. Today, the US presidential election campaign, the Middle East turmoil, the “war on terror” and gender issues, among others, are fertile ground for more of doublespeak’s sprouts.
Recent examples from finance underline its power. One is “goodwill”, which companies carry on their balance sheets. Sounds optimistic enough – yet goodwill as used in the parlance represents assets carried forward that aren’t exactly quantifiable or, for lack of a better term, aren’t real. So, simply put, goodwill may turn into ill will.
And while “yield” has long been music to investors’ ears by connoting a positive financial return, the “negative yields” filling today’s financial discourse make a strange mix of the good and bad, leaving many folks perplexed. The investing research report Midas Letter cites an example from the 22 August 2016 Bloomberg.com article, “World’s Biggest Bond Traders Undeterred by Negative Yields”, quoting it: “Consider that Swiss debt maturing in almost 50 years yields around zero, or that Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer products maker, has securities due in 2020 yielding negative 0.19 per cent.” According to the Midas Letter, “What it should say, if we weren’t being subjected to a mainstream media-enforced legitimizing effect, is ‘Consider that Swiss debt maturing in almost 50 years pays nothing, or that Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer products maker, has securities due in 2020 that cost the lender 0.19 per cent’.”
Saying one thing and doing another, flip-flopping on issues, using weasel words, speaking with forked tongue: all have been cited as doublespeak. And while not true to the exact definition, they are symptomatic of how important and wide-ranging the phenomenon has become. Expect more of it and much discussion in the media on this topic in the near future.
Meanwhile, here are classic examples of doublespeak vs the clear, standard meaning:
collateral damage vs destruction
detainee vs prisoner of war
downsizing vs layoffs
not doing so well or under the weather vs very sick
person of interest vs suspect
pre-emptive strike vs unprovoked attack
preowned vs used or worn
profiling vs invasion of personal privacy
quaint vs unappealing
unique or special vs strange
using the facilities vs going to the bathroom
well loved vs old and raggedy
Do you have others?