English, Newspeak and the Problem of Language

Wow. That’s an intimidating title. Not sure I can live up to it, guys, but I’ll do my best.

This thought actually started yesterday, when my brother asked me to explain the line between “human rights” and “entitlement”, and I realized I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t define a “human right” even if I would be paid with a new laptop (which, trust me, would be really good incentive).

Why? Because I hear it every day, in so many different ways, and some are valid while some are superfluous and ridiculous. Is our need for a piece of government-approved paper that says “I love you” really on the same level as our need for food and clean water?

What is a “right?” Is it synonymous with “necessity”, or are they two separate things? And when does “right” become “requirement” (e.g. public or government-monitored education, or controlled “healthy” food)?

After thinking about this, I started making a list of terms or phrases that stood out to me as “buzzwords” – words tossed around so much they’ve lost value. I only have a couple so far, but there was one that really stood out: terrorism.

What is a terrorist? My lovely Dictionary.com app defines “terrorist” as ‘ 1-A person, usually a member of a group, who uses or advocates terrorism. 2-A person who terrorizes or frightens others.’ “Terrorism” isn’t much clearer: ‘The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.’

Seriously? For a word I hear at least once a week, that’s an awfully wide net. Under those definitions, I’ve known many fairly average high school students who would classify as terrorists.

The word “terrorism” is actually stupider than the usual crap tossed around in the news now, because it’s actually dangerous. What do you think when you hear the word “terrorism?” Do you think, “I should stay calm and follow emergency procedure to maximize everyone’s chances of safely getting out”? Or do you hear the word “TERROR” and react accordingly?

Certain words produce gut reactions. As a “writer” (though I use that term loosely) and more importantly as someone with a borderline-unhealthy love of language, I can see it better than many. I watch horror movies for comic relief, but I read horror stories for actual fear, because that’s where it is. Certain phrases and words (underneath, twisted, empty, and probably several thousand more I can’t remember) will keep me up all night when seeing some guy drill a girl’s eye out just gets me throwing metaphorical popcorn at the TV, shouting about bad character development and unclear motivation (not to mention I could guess the ending of that episode about 5 minutes in, but I digress).

Wow. Was I making a point there? Oh. Right. Language.

So here’s the thing. You start throwing the word “terrorist” around on every cable network in America, people will panic. And why wouldn’t they? Not only is it a awful-sounding word (terror) but it’s got an “ism” tacked on the end, and there’s nothing society fears more than a looming “ism” they don’t really understand. Believe me, I know. I’ve got my own “ism” to have to explain – atheISM.

There’s the other part of fear-inducing language: it’s vague. It’s so vague, you don’t really even get words in your head when you hear it, just a sense of darkness, fear, and dread. That’s another trait of a well-written horror story – what the reader can imagine will always, ALWAYS, be a thousand times more frightening than anything you could ever describe. The general sense of words tends to carry more than the paragraphs themselves. It’s not the word “empty” that scares me, it’s the ineffable feeling of darkness it evokes in my mind. You can’t write it or say it, you can only plant the idea.

Words shape our concept of… everything. In English, we write left–>right. When you ask a native English-speaker questions about the passage of time, they’ll say things like “it’s still down the road” or “that’s all behind me now.” However, Chinese characters run vertically from top to bottom. Native Mandarin speakers were more likely to say something was “up” (already happened) or “down” (in the future). (Stanford Study)

In 1984, there’s a discussion about revising dictionaries to not only increase efficiency in communications (why say “bad” when you can say “ungood?”), but also to remove dangerous lines of thought (you can’t think about freedom or privacy if you don’t have a name for the concept) and promote more healthy, normal, productive ideas (namely, loving Big Brother).

The word “terrorist” provokes a knee-jerk panic response in the average person, and has no real use or meaning. It’s certainly not bothering any attackers – what, are they offended? Are they crying to their mommies because some guy on TV called them a mean word? If anything, the word implies they’ve done their job and done it well.

So stop fucking using it.

That is all. Goodnight.



3 thoughts on “English, Newspeak and the Problem of Language

  1. MF October 24, 2011 / 2:32 AM

    I do hope you get to another country and stay for a while… long enough to realize that America is “Fear Nation” and the entire culture is bent on drilling into everyone’s head the fear of everything – so you stay off balance and listen to the authorities. I don’t mean just police… I mean anyone slinging an ad your way that says – this is how you need to look. If you don’t, you’re old and not part of the A-Level game. This is what you need to carry around, Apple products, if you don’t – you’re not like the brilliant artsy people.


    I had a friend visit from the USA a while ago. She was a quivering mess of fear… and I had nothing to share with her. What a wasted visit, for both of us.

    Get outside the USA as fast as you can, and for as long as you can. You have one of those minds that is dying to get out and experience a bigger worldview than what america gives you.

  2. Mummy October 24, 2011 / 10:08 AM

    Yeah– I’m with him. I can’t wait to see where your life takes you, Hannah. I hope you blog about it every step of the way so I can enjoy it all, too.

  3. Molly October 24, 2011 / 12:41 PM

    Hi Hannah, I’m an old friend of your mom’s. Wait, that’s
    not right. I’m a young friend of your mom’s from a long time ago.
    See, we really are afraid of everything in the US of A. Your
    interest in language and ability to express yourself well and
    clearly is so damn refreshing. I agree with MF. Git while you still
    can! The rest of the world has different ways of thinking that will
    broaden your perspective, light you up and set you exploring new
    avenues you may have no idea exist from your current perspective.
    Blah, blah, blah. Here’s what I really want to share. Check out
    Neurolinguistic Programming and Hypnosis. It is all about language
    and how to create your world with the words you use. Go to nlp.com,
    they are a reputable company and have great teachers. I think you
    will find some good books on the subject, too. Good luck, thanks
    for writing something so fun and thoughtful. Molly

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