Doublespeak and Newspeak: Controlling Words — Controlling Minds

After Russia
11 min readFeb 13, 2024

How Orwell became the Russian Reality

Why should you care?

In 2017, the advisor to the U.S. President, Kellyanne Conway, was asked why the White House press secretary had lied about the attendance at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Conway responded that it was not a lie but an “alternative fact.” This is a prime example of Doublespeak, which is widely prevalent in the media, advertising, and social networks.

Linguist William Lutz characterises Doublespeak in his book Doublespeak as follows:

“Doublespeak is a language designed to evade responsibility, make the unpleasant appear pleasant, the unattractive appear attractive; basically, it is a language designed to mislead while pretending not to.”

William Lutz, linguist

For example:

  • “downsizing” instead of “layoff”,
  • “air support” instead of “bombing.”

But why do people engage in this? After all, if you call black white, it won’t become any whiter.

The danger of Doublespeak lies in its attempt not only to mask unpleasant phenomena but also to some extent alter their perception. It is known that language influences human thinking — scientists debate the extent of this influence. According to the theory of linguistic relativity, our thought processes are influenced by one’s native language, including its vocabulary. Thus, changing the language can change our thoughts.

This feature of human thinking is used by many, including the media in democratic countries. Sometimes, Doublespeak is used in advertising statements that are innocent at first glance. For example, in compositions of products, manufacturers often list:

  • “high fructose corn syrup”
  • “dextrose”
  • “sucrose”

and about 50 other euphemisms designed to disguise the presence of sugar.

And sometimes, Doublespeak becomes a powerful weapon in the hands of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, such as Nazi Germany, USSR, and Putin’s Russia. Using their examples, we will examine how Doublespeak and Newspeak work and what makes it so dangerous.

Newspeak and Doublespeak: Two of a Kind

In modern Russia, Doublespeak is commonly referred to as “Newspeak,” although these are two different concepts.

Newspeak (or “Novoyaz”)

Newspeak, or “novoyaz” in Russian, is a fictional language created by the totalitarian state of Oceania in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Newspeak was inspired by the official documents of contemporary totalitarian regimes, such as the Third Reich and Stalinist USSR, observed by Orwell.

Cover of 1984, a novel by George Orwell
Cover of 1984, a novel by George Orwell

In the book, the ruling party of Oceania invented Newspeak to prevent people from committing “thoughtcrime” — thinking something contrary to the party’s ideology. To narrow the boundaries of human thought and deprive people of the ability to operate with abstract concepts like “free will,” the ruling party simply removed these concepts from the language. Newspeak is described as “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year,” as words expressing ideologically incorrect ideas, such as freedom, equality, revolution, rationalism, and objectivity, are systematically eliminated.

However, the ruling party of Oceania didn’t merely eliminate ideologically incorrect words — Newspeak differs grammatically from old English. This is the main distinction between Newspeak and Doublespeak.

Doublespeak

Doublespeak is a tendency to use truth-obscuring words in our everyday language. In his book Doublespeak, William Lutz identified four types of Doublespeak:

  1. euphemisms,
  2. jargon,
  3. bureaucratese,
  4. and inflated language (half-truths, vague ambiguous formulations).

Newspeak, on the other hand, is a separate language with its own grammar rules and lexicon, created to serve the needs of the ruling party. The grammar and vocabulary of Newspeak are simplified to the maximum extent, making it suitable only for everyday needs and unsuitable for philosophical contemplation on abstract topics. After all, such reflections can lead people to dangerous oppositional thoughts.

While the original meaning of the term “Newspeak”, coined by George Orwell, presupposed a kind of new language, later, this term began to be used in a broader sense, including its use to refer to “Doublespeak.” In practice, political regimes may use “Doublespeak” and “Newspeak” in combination.

For instance, although in reality, Russian propaganda did not invent a fully new language, in the context of contemporary Russian journalism, social media, and spoken language, “Newspeak” is a well-established expression used to describe bureaucratic phrases that erase the original meaning of words.

Doublespeak and Newspeak: What Are They For?

In his essay The Status of Linguistics as a Science, linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir writes:

Language is a guide to social reality… Human beings do not live in the objective world alone… but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society.

Edward Sapir, linguist and anthropologist

The power of words is immense: we use them to describe the reality in which we exist, and our perception of this reality is largely shaped by words and their meanings. People associate specific ideas and images with particular words. Therefore, to evoke a more positive reaction and create a more positive image for a phenomenon, sometimes it may be enough to come up with a new word for it.

For example, the industry of gambling can be called the “gambling industry,” or it can be called the “gaming industry”. Formally, both are correct, as gambling is still a form of gaming. However, these words evoke different images: “gambling” is associated with risk, debt, and gaming addiction, while “gaming” is associated with fun entertainment for the whole family.

Some people even specialise in helping their clients choose words that will better sell their product, change public opinion on an issue, or a candidate. For instance, American political consultant Frank Luntz came up with using the term “climate change” instead of “global warming” to make environmental discussions sound less threatening. He also coined the term “death tax” instead of “estate tax” to, on the contrary, instil fear in voters and generate more negativity towards the tax.

Frank Luntz, american political consultant coining terms climate change and death tax
Frank Luntz, american political consultant coining terms climate change and death tax

All of this makes Doublespeak an ideal weapon of propaganda. It helps shape the reader’s “correct” attitude toward a particular issue, situation, or problem. Linguist Noam Chomsky and economist Edward S. Herman, in their book Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, write that propaganda in American media often employs a technique reminiscent of Orwellian Doublespeak — double standards in news coverage. For example, the use of state funds by the poor and financially needy is often referred to as “social welfare” or “handouts,” which the “coddled” poor “take advantage of”. However, these terms are not as frequently applied to other recipients of government funds, such as the military.

Moreover, Doublespeak is an excellent way to avoid telling the truth directly, without fear of being caught in a lie. Choosing words carefully allows one to conceal inconvenient facts or even completely change their meaning. Even seemingly precise numbers and statistics can be interpreted differently. Scientists and politicians gather data that support their arguments and then use ambiguous formulations to avoid outright falsehood. Edward S. Herman dedicated a book, Beyond Hypocrisy, to this topic. There, he writes:

What is really important in the world of Doublespeak is the ability to lie, whether knowingly or unconsciously, and to get away with it; and the ability to use lies and choose and shape facts selectively, blocking out those that don’t fit an agenda or program.

Edward S. Herman, author of book Beyond Hypocrisy

Newspeak and Doublespeak: History and Fiction

George Orwell’s 1984 novel

  • Doublethink is the ability to believe in two mutually exclusive things and change one’s opinion to the opposite based on ideological necessity. “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” is one of the main slogans of the ruling party in Oceania.
  • Oldthink is rationalism and objectivity.
  • Crimethink is freedom and equality.
  • Telescreen is a device that functions as both a television and a video camera, installed in the home of every citizen. It displayed propaganda to people and monitored them.
  • Joycamp is a concentration camp.

Nazi Germany

Anschluss Poster, 1938
  • Endlösung der Judenfrage — “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” referring to the mass extermination of Jews.
  • Sonderbehandlung — “Special Treatment,” meaning execution.
  • Anschluss — “Annexation,” indicating the conquest of foreign territories.
  • Gleichschaltung — “Coordination” or “Synchronisation,” signifying the takeover of control over societal and political organisations.
  • Various abbreviations: “HJ” (Hitlerjugend, Hitler Youth, the youth organisation of the Nazi Party), “DJ” (Deutsches Jungvolk, German Young People, the junior section of the Hitler Youth), “KdF” (Kraft durch Freude, Strength Through Joy, a political organisation dealing with leisure activities in the Reich), and so on. Various neologisms incorporating the words “Volk” (“people”), “Reich” (“empire”), and “Rasse” (“race”).

Soviet Union

“We will destroy the kulaks” — Soviet propaganda poster from 1930s
  • Unconscious or class-unconscious — an individual lacking class or political consciousness in terms of communist ideology. Such people in the Soviet Union were also referred to as “politically backward.”
  • Class enemies — representatives of the bourgeoisie, aristocracy, small and large landowners.
  • Fulfilling international duty — the war in Afghanistan.
  • Kulak — a successful peasant-owner using hired labour in their economic activities.
  • Anti-Soviet element — an individual, either in the past or at present, acting against the regime or the official ideology of the Soviet Union. This term was also applied to those who did not take active steps against the Soviet system but were considered a potential threat due to their previous sphere of activity or social status.
  • Various complex abbreviations resembling George Orwell’s Newspeak: “agitprop” (“Agitation and Propaganda Department”), “pomgol” (“Komitet Pomoshchi Golodayushchim” — “Committee for Aid to the Starving”), “gorkom” (“Gorodskoi Komitet” — “City Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”).

Newspeak and Doublespeak: Russia Today

In modern Russia, yet another flavour of Newspeak began to emerge after Vladimir Putin came to power. One of the earliest and most vivid examples is the sinking of the submarine “Kursk” in 2000, which sank due to the accidental explosion of a torpedo. At that time, the Russian Navy commented that the submarine had “settled on the seabed”. When the submariners could still have been saved, authorities claimed they had established communication with the crew, although in reality, they only heard an SOS signal emanating from the submarine. In the end, the entire crew perished.

Since then, and to this day, the main purpose for which Russian authorities use Newspeak has been established:

  • to soften the perception of negative events,
  • to conceal unfavourable facts,
  • and to create a new reality in which there are no catastrophes in Russia, and everything is well.

According to the investigation by Meduza, the press services of Russian government departments coordinate all information occasions with the president’s administration and use the so-called “favoured regime”: the focus on good news, while the bad is veiled. For every nine pieces of good news, there is one about some “gas clap” — the term authorities use for explosions.

Newspeak fully unfolded after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 — which Russian propaganda calls not an annexation but:

  • a “joining,”
  • a “liberation,”
  • and “return to the native harbour”,
People celebrating a year of annexation of Crimea. Posters say, from left to right: “I’m proud of my country”, “Happy together”, “Together, we’re undefeatable”, “Crimea is ours. Obama, don’t be jealous”, “We’ll never be defeated.” Photograph: Fadeichev Sergei/Itar-Tass Photo/Corbis

providing another example of Newspeak. Since 2014, Newspeak has dominated Russia’s official state rhetoric: pro-government media, political speeches, official documents, and statements from state agencies and government departments.

Until 2022, Newspeak was primarily used by the authorities and pro-government media. However, after the start of the war in Ukraine, the population also adopted it. Many people in Russia don’t call war a war because it’s forbidden. Using the word “war” not only leads to media censorship but also triggers administrative and criminal cases. Therefore, instead of the word “war,” many write and say “SVO” — “special military operation.” This is how Russian authorities refer to the war in Ukraine.

There are double standards in the use of Newspeak: ordinary people are required to say “SVO” instead of “war,” while propagandist Margarita Simonyan can say “war” instead of “SVO” in a live broadcast, and face no consequences.

Screenshot from Telegram of Margarita Simonyan, russian propagandist, that says: [This video is] for those who forgot, don’t know or don’t want to know why this war has started.

The Dictionary of Russian Media

In modern Russian Newspeak, several thematic groups can be distinguished.

War

  • “Denazification” — the overthrow of the current Ukraine’s authorities. This is how the Russian regime justifies the war in Ukraine. “Denazification” is the main goal of the “special military operation.” Initially, “denazification” was an Allied initiative to rid German and Austrian society, culture, press, economy, judiciary, and politics of the Nazi ideology following the Second World War.
  • “Special military operation”, “events in Ukraine,” “situation” — the war in Ukraine.
  • “Musicians”, orchestra — fighters of the private military company “Wagner.” This euphemism is very popular both in Russian media and among the population, as “musicians” sounds much more pleasant than “mercenaries.”
  • “Unknown absence in the military unit” — death in war.
  • “Temporary stay” — evacuation.
  • “A gesture of goodwill” — the forced retreat of the Russian army.
  • “Recently drafted servicemen” — mobilised.
  • “Liquidation” — murder.
  • “Liberated territories” — seized/occupied territories.

Economy

  • “Structural transformation” — crisis.
  • “Anti-record” — the worst result.
  • “Stability”, “stable” — stagnation, stagnant.
  • “Negative growth” — a decline in a particular indicator.
  • “Assortment adjustment” “underdeliveries” — deficit.
  • “Limited readiness” — not ready.
  • “Optimisation” — mass layoffs.
  • “Extended shelf-life” — expired.
  • “Idle”, “on idle” — unemployed, on paid or unpaid leave.

Politics and Media

  • “Blogger” — Alexei Navalny. The Kremlin has prohibited officials and heads of state-owned companies from mentioning the name of the opposition figure Alexei Navalny in public speeches to avoid giving him unnecessary publicity.
  • “Child protection” (from information) — censorship.
  • “Measures of technological influence” — blocking an internet resource.
  • “To refute” — to deny. A speaker “refuting” a statement does not necessarily provide evidence. For example, the speaker may say that there are no “Wagner’s” PMCs in Sudan, but not to prove it in any way.
  • “Implement measures” — initiate a criminal case or block a website.
  • “Fake” — information that does not come from the Russian Ministry of Defense or other official sources. You”ve probably seen this word in Western media too — for example, Donald Trump often calls any unpleasant information about himself “fake news.”

Emergency Situations

  • “Incident”, “occurrence” — emergency situation: accident, explosion, technological disaster, drone attack.
  • “Water manifestation” — flood.
  • “Smoking”, “ignition” — fire.
  • “Outbreak”, “clap” — explosion.
  • “Hard landing”, “rough landing” — aviation disaster.
  • “Vacation” — quarantine.
  • “Convergence” — collision.

Newspeak as a Double-Edged Sword

Originally conceived as a propaganda tool, Newspeak is often played ironically and used as a means of resistance. Jokes about the euphemism “clap” (“explosion”) are especially popular, based on the fact that, in Russian, it sounds similar to the word “хлопок” (cotton). And when a pro-government figure dies, it is said that they “negatively survived.”

Moreover, Russian Newspeak has become a subject of humour in Ukraine.

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