Thursday, April 22, 2010


The idea of "Newspeak" - a sanitized, simplified, politicized version of English - is one of the most enduring legacies of George Orwell's fiction. Newspeak was deliberately designed to regulate human interaction and obscure dangerous ideas. "Freedom is Slavery" is the most famous example. But for Orwell, Newspeak was far more insiduous than this sort of linguistic obscurantism. In a description of Newspeak in 1984, he writes:

"By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like "freedom is slavery" when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."

That was the real terror of Newspeak; not that it was a tool of deception, but that it was a tool of destruction and devaluation. It didn't simply hide truth - it destroyed truths.

That is Orwell's Newspeak, and commentators are always on the look out for it. Branding your opponent as a "Big Brother" or "Orwellian", or identifying something they say as "Newspeak" is always a winning rhetorical strategy (well... at least a winning punditry strategy). But something interesting I saw today on the BBC website highlighted actual political manipulation of language and made me think that perhaps instead of Newspeak, Orwell should have offered us "Mustspeak". Newspeak's ability to frame contradictory ideas as consistent, and its blighting of the English language certainly makes for good fiction, but Mustspeak - a form of political language that compels people to action - is probably more pervasive in real life than Newspeak will ever end up being.

BBC created a "word cloud" of British political party platforms from 1945 to the present. The regularity of the appearance of the word "must" really struck me. Politicians certainly try to hide the truth, don't get me wrong. But in a free society that can be a challenging task. Sometimes what's more effective is for politicians to try compel people to action, before they have time to reflect on the truth. In a society with a free press, a strong education system, and a literate populace there's only so much truth you can hide. But what you can do is manufacture a sense of urgency or duty that blunts or retards critical thought.

So by all means, keep looking for Newspeak ("new" came up in the word clouds a lot as well). But be on the look out for the less publicized examples of Mustspeak. And if you ever read about Mustspeak in a dystopian novel, just remember: you heard it here first.


  1. The whole "orthodoxy is unconsciousness/not thinking/not needing to think" thing is bothering me. That's as much a bit of newspeak as "freedom is slavery".

    The mustspeak idea strikes me as mapping onto U.S. politics even more naturally than British politics. I can't think of a single political camp that doesn't employ it on a regular basis.

  2. Well, is it possible for one to interrogate orthodoxy with the goal of potentially changing it? It seems to me that one can reflect on orthodoxy or perhaps expound on orthodoxy... but "needing to think" about it? Perhaps not.

    I don't know - I think you're probably translating "orthodoxy" in a significantly more specific way than he was intending it.

    As for the "must" impulse - I had this feeling a lot during the health care debate. Why are we shoving this through now? Part of that, I suppose, was the politics of the moment. It wouldn't get done otherwise. That's a marginally better justification than trying to prevent rational thought. But I still think if we slowed the process down and did it piecemeal we would have been a lot better for it.

    Of course other people say the same thing about the stimulus - that it was crammed down our throats. Ultimately it depends on context. People make a lot out of Rahm Emmanuel's "never waste a crisis". The fact is, sometimes there really are crises that you do have to respond to swiftly, and sometimes there aren't. I would personally argue that the economic downturn was a crisis and health care isn't.

  3. I don't know - I think you're probably translating "orthodoxy" in a significantly more specific way than he was intending it.

    I don't know about "more specific"... but clearly in a different way. Which, I take it, is the whole point of newspeak: to restrict the possibilities of word use by changing meaning in a paradoxical fashion. Or something like that (you know Orwell better than I do).


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.