The Tyranny of Words

Posted on 17 March 2010


“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”  The familiar expression coined by American writer Gertrude Stein conveys a simple truth: no matter what something is called, its inherent qualities remain the same.  In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare expressed a similar view through the utterance of Juliet – “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”


And yet, today, we live in an age in which a new form of language is utilized, often to circumvent the truth or conceal the fact that nothing much is actually being stated.  Who can forget the Presidency of William Jefferson Clinton.  A master of circumlocution and the parsing of words, President Clinton will forever be remembered for remarks like “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” and “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”  Of course, politicians have long been noted for “stretching” if not “shredding” the truth.  And, this behavior is not confined to one political ideology.  Consider that when Richard Nixon was found to have lied, his handlers characterized his remarks as “inoperative,” or that, in attempting to justify war with Iraq, George W. Bush stated that a search of Iraq uncovered “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities” – whatever it is that that means.  Today, as Congress debates healthcare reform, Democrats and Republicans alike choose their words with extreme care as they explain or answer questions regarding their respective positions on this issue, lest they reveal the unvarnished truth.


Totalitarian regimes have long known that by controlling language, they can control the thinking of their subjects.  Those who disagreed with political oppression were branded “enemies of the revolution” in Stalinist Russia and “enemies of the Reich” in Hitler’s Germany.


In free societies, framing the terms of debate facilitates political gain.  And so, adroit politicians such as Ronald Reagan demonized the term “Liberal” at the expense of their political opponents.  Likewise, Congressmen give euphemistic titles to their bills that belie the actual content of the legislation.


Of course, political expression owes much of its development to Madison Avenue where advertising think-tanks continually find new ways to promote products that separate consumers from their hard-earned money.  Using colorful adjectives and adverbs, advertising language can create in the mind of the consumer significant differences between essentially homogeneous products like gasoline or bottled water.


In the classic dystopian novel, 1984, George Orwell describes a fictional language that he terms “Newspeak.”  “Newspeak” is a scaled-down form of English employed by the despotic regime in power to maintain control over its subjects.  By narrowing the vocabulary of the language, the government could limit alternative ways of thinking and consolidate its power by eliminating words describing concepts such as freedom and revolution.  One wonders how close our language of today comes to the fictional “Newspeak” of 1984.


And so, when you read or hear a statement that you do not understand because the language employed is purposefully evasive, question the writer or speaker.  Force him to state his position in more concrete terms.  You may be striking a blow for freedom, or at the very least clarity.





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6 Responses to “The Tyranny of Words”

  1. Jack S. Fogbound says:

    Excellent article about the gymnastics of vocabulary used by politicians to play down their statements. Instaed of saying I lied, they say “I mispoke” Presidenr Clinton in the defense of his sexual encounter with an intern wanted to define what the word “is” meant. For years it was refered to as “Goobledegook” but in real eaglish it translates to “Bullshit” and if bullshit was electicity they would be a powerhouse

  2. Tresch says:

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  4. TYRONE MENDEZ says:

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  5. BEN PERKINS says:

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