Doublespeak isn’t really lying, it’s just a temporary failure to implement honesty.
I was at a meeting the other day in which someone questioned the need to “be honest” about something that had occurred at the office the day before. This led to a rambling, circuitous dialogue about what truth and honesty mean, and when and whether they’re important. The ensuing debate utilized all the usual justifications for deception, like “protecting feelings” or the likelihood that a trivial negative truth would distort an overall message. At first I was quietly lamenting the demise of basic honesty in our lives, but as the debate rolled on and became more convoluted, I was reminded of a book that came out in the 90′s called Doublespeak Defined. It was a clever collection of the common doublespeak of the era. Later in the day I pulled the book off the shelf for the first time in ages, and I have to admit that although some of the examples cited in the book still provided a laugh, what struck me more was how the language almost sounded normal. But I guess in an era when message consultants like Frank Luntz (political consultant and author of Words That Work), are able to transform a term for something you’ve already paid for – like “social security” – into something it sounds like you don’t deserve – like “entitlements”, or when “stockpiling machine guns” means “exercising Second Amendment rights”, this shouldn’t be surprising. But the real world impact of the thinking caused by this kind of language usage can have tangible unfortunate results. One example I ran across recently was a term used amongst shareholders and executives inside the insurance industry. The term “Medical Loss Ratio” (ironically also called the “benefit ratio”, a classic example of doublespeak), refers to the percentage of an insurance company’s revenue that is paid out to policy holders. A high MLR means that the company paid a lot out in benefits, and this will make shareholders unhappy, so that the stock will go down, which means the CEO probably won’t get a bonus. The irony here of course being that everyone inside the company benefits when the company fails to provide the primary service it charges customers for, i.e.: paying benefits on policies the consumer already paid for. For the record – if your brain just fogged over reading that explanation, that just means it worked! So anyway, after pondering this evolution of modern language for a while, and lamenting the demise of integrity and decency, I made peace with it all by observing that people aren’t lying more, they’re just experiencing a temporary failure to implement honesty. For a great example of where this could all lead, check out Frank Luntz’s Top Ten Tips For Institutions Facing Sexual Abuse Scandals, which points out, for instance, that saying a man is a “frail vessel” is a lot more palatable than saying he’s a “pervert”.
In Doublespeak Defined, author William Lutz points out that there are four basic types of doublespeak: euphemism, jargon, gobbledygook (or bureaucratese), and inflated language. This stuff is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. My favorite version is probably the gobbledygook/bureaucratese method. Simply take a word, think of a fancy antonym for it, and wrap it all in a clever negative phrase. This is how you can easily replace an unsavory term like “dying” with the comforting “failing to fulfill wellness potential”. Some of my favorite examples from the book are below, for more comprehensive lists, check out this one on YourDictionary.com, or this one on SourceWatch.
airplane crash n.
unscheduled ground contact
non-goal-oriented member of society
negative patient care outcome
surgical isolation of the head
drop a baby v.
non-facile manipulation of newborn
failure to thrive
failing to fulfill wellness potential
interfibrous friction fastener
human being n.
soft target (military)
unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life
forced involuntary disappearance
medical malpractice n.
diagnostic misadventure of a high magnitude
miss the target v.
outside current accuracy requirements
aerodynamic personnel decelerator
ambient noncombatant personnel
backloading of augmentation personnel
security guard n.
loss prevention specialist
night entry supervisor
long range target reductions specialist
steel nut n.
hexaform, rotatable surface compression unit
tax increase n.
tax base erosion control
trailer park n.
manufactured home facility
negative vulnerability to water entry