George Orwell coined the term

Shades of Green: The Devious Language of Doublespeak


The National Council of Teachers of English describes doublespeak as a blending of George Orwell’s newspeak and doublethink. “Such language,” stresses the National Council, “is not the product of carelessness or sloppy thinking; rather, it is the result of clear thinking.” Indeed, it is “carefully designed to change reality or to mislead.”

More specifically, notes The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by David Crystal (1997), doublespeak is “language which pretends to communicate, but really doesn’t. It is language which makes the bad seem good, the negative seem positive, the unpleasant appear attractive, or at least tolerable. It is language which avoids or shifts responsibility, language which is at variance with its real or its purported meaning. It is language which conceals or prevents thought.”

The first winner of the National Council’s Doublespeak Award went to Colonel Opfer, the 1974 United States press officer in Cambodia who insisted that reporters were using the wrong terminology to describe US bombing raids. “You always write it’s bombing, bombing, bombing. It’s not bombing. It’s air support.” Of the many subsequent awards, another went to the US nuclear power industry for the euphemisms it used to describe the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island – an explosion became an “energetic disassembly”, the resulting fire was “rapid oxidation” and the reactor incident was deemed “a normal aberration”. The US Department of State won a later award for announcing that the word “killing” would in future be replaced by “unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life”.

Doublespeak is a common condition. The National Council notes that its synonyms include parliamentese, legalese, gobbledygook, bafflegab and fedspeak. The advertising and corporate world are fond of using doublespeak to hide the portion of reality they don’t want to declare. Like all such language, words are “carefully designed to change reality or to mislead.”

Sometimes doublespeak seems to exist in epidemic proportions, like a pervasive blight infecting the entire landscape of human thought. Political phrases such as “Axis of Evil” are the environmental kin of “ethical oil” or “clean coal”. The reduction of a complex issue to an inane simplicity can be breathtaking. Cost, details, justification and consequences are avoided in awesome leaps of abbreviation. All the environmental problems that could accrue from a new mine are magically dismissed because it creates “jobs”. This four-letter word becomes the justification for unsettling communities and ecologies that were functioning just fine before “opportunity” arrived.

“Opportunity”, in the modern vernacular, is a blessing that should never be missed on the freeway to “progress” – another rainbow we keep chasing over the mountains and through the valleys, usually leaving in its wake a trail of ecological havoc. Like “sustainable development”, “progress” is often an oxymoron in one word instead of two.

Always give a second thought to words such as “healthy”, “natural”, “cheap” and “efficient”. “New” has been a perennial deceiver because it can mean almost anything. In a consumer’s world of boundless material optimism, few seem to consider that “new” is untested and unproven, something conceivably faddish, possibly superficial, potentially unreliable, maybe unnecessary and perhaps dangerous.

Even apparently reputable words such as “recyclable” can be twisted to imply that a product can be justifiably purchased because it will come to an ethical end, a claim that may be unsupportable in any but the most remote sense. Thus doublespeak finds itself in the company of “greenwashing”.

For plastics that allegedly “break down”, the implication is that they reduce to harmless components. In reality, the “breaking down” is usually the decomposition of the material that binds the plastic together, releasing the toxic matter into the environment in such microscopic particles that it is virtually unrecoverable. The result is far worse than if the product did not “break down”. “Compostable” is the only plastic that breaks down in any legitimate biological sense.

One of the most devious and subtle forms of all doublespeak might be called the vacuous platitude, the bathing of incriminating evidence in saccharine terminology that denies by seeming to acknowledge, that rejects by seeming to agree, and that evades by seeming to encourage. BC’s salmon farming industry has been a master of this form of doublespeak. In the face of withering evidence that open net-pen feedlots transfer sea lice and disease to wild migrating salmon, the industry invariably meets every critical scientific study with an unshakable air of self-confidence. The latest example is its response to the damning evidence in Sea Louse Infection of Juvenile Sockeye in Relation to Marine Salmon Farms on Canada’s West Coast (Courier- Islander, Feb. 11/11). The industry professes its best efforts, welcomes the findings, points out other unlikely explanations, declares a kinship with wild salmon, and then encourages further studies. Meanwhile, salmon farming carries on unchanged.

Doublespeak is now epidemic. Its the deception that makes every industrial project “green”, that sanitizes toxic areas as “reclamation sites”, that affronts nature by calling logging “development”, that ironically names shopping malls “Meadowbrook” or “Woodgrove”. Political attack ads are one of the most devious forms of doublespeak. Their unsupported innuendos are slick and slippery masterpieces, too cowardly to make an outright accusation and too vague to provide grounds for rebuttal.

All doublespeak leaves a wake of deception, frustration and cynicism, as if language were turned against itself and a Tower of Babel were broadcasting a confusion that renders people confounded and powerless.


About Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.

5 thoughts on “Shades of Green: The Devious Language of Doublespeak

  1. Yes, that was a joke Roger. Just making fun of the spammer who suggested, “I think you must know him.”

  2. Speaking of George Orwell, you say “we became close friends during the Spanish civil war.”

    Wow! You must be nonagenarian or perhaps even a centenarian. WOW!

    I am an octogenarian. My only memory, I was ten, of the Spanish civil war were the young Basque refugees, khaki shorts and black berets, camped close to my home in Yorkshire.

    Your stamina for work, getting about and clear thinquing is admirable.

    Or are you giving us a bit of “Devious Language and Doublespeak” Mr. Gillis . . . LOL

  3. I knew him personally, Resume – we became close friends during the Spanish civil war.

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