This is Oceania.
This is my blog about the English language. This in particular is about how words are manipulated and neutralised to sell a political idea or enforce a doctrinaire authority. Of course, not everything I write will be true. Or make sense.
You lost. Get over it.
In 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian classic, Oceania is a totalitarian state under the guiding eye of Big Brother and the Party. Control of the citizenry is acomplished in great part by a linguistic fraud that is packaged and marketed as Newspeak. This is a long-term and ongoing cultural theft that will, the authorities believe, stifle the freedom to debate ideas and so ensure obedience to the state.
Welcome to Oceania. Here on Airstrip One we have heard from way too many experts so don’t go getting clever. No facecrime. Not now the thought police are among us – No! don’t look round – history will be re-written by the winners. Are you a winner or an unperson? Winners conform. Do you want to be rectified?
In 1984, under Big Brother’s authority, discourse is being systematically reduced as swathes of language are removed from licit circulation. Words are simplified, restructured or retasked as required by those who know what’s best. The Party believes that by creating an acceptable, politically-corrected vocabulary the possibility of any dissent against Partywise orthodoxy will be eradicated. The greater good requires that any democratic freedoms to express views that the authorities consider ungoodful must therefore be criminalized. And such is the nature of man that the constantly diminishing and rigidly enforced vocabulary of Newspeak has become a commonplace. It is accepted as the social norm. We the people of Oceania have been habituated to the concepts of thought crime.
War is peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength.
John Bull says: Do it to Julia.
Language, our language, our magnificent English language in most of its myriad forms is a democratic wonder. It is ours. So much more than a merely cultural achievement or accident; we didn’t just happen to inherit it, we took it on and took it further. Our language continually evolves in answer to the needs of all of us proles. It is perhaps the greatest, overtly democratic achievement that we all actually own and don’t merely pay lip service to. And, like our democracy, it is far from perfect. But our tongue can lick the hand that feeds it. This is English: tarnished by imperialism, stained by propaganda, free at point of use.
In the UK we do not yet live in a satirical Oceania. You may think otherwise but if we did we would surely not have needed so much as an advisory referendum to yield our freedoms. 1984 is a satire. No one here, now, really believes in Big Brother, do they? It’s a literary allusion. Besides, we do have sufficient words should we need to express ourselves, don’t we?
How many words does anybody need?
And we have great words, we have the best words. We know the oldspeak words. Brilliant oldspeak words, by the way, but goodthink rectifies words from our oldthink wordlist. Not ungood. We blackwhite a bit of self-rectifying is doubleplusgood than causing offence. Innit.
In the modern, all-singing-and-dancing la la UK we are variously obliged by parts or all of society to avoid hate words. Fair enough. Shifting moral standards are part of the evolution of our language. No argument with that. It is also why we conspire to refrain from being unsubtly offensive with regard to (in no particular order in case you are thinking of taking offence at an implied hierarchy) gender, disability, age, race, religion, sexual-orientation, size; by and large, we hear whoever’s shouting loudest and conspire to society’s standards and evolving morality. Our language in this regard isn’t simplified à la Newspeak: it is euphemized and encrypted.
Our language is not under control – ah! the joy of unbridled lex! Every word you may need is there in dictionaries or on the street. If you can’t find the word you want, neologise: coin a phrase, start a bit of slang. Years pass, society’s attitudes change, but we always have alternative means to say what we think … For instance, in that diversity list a few lines back, I wrote ‘sexual-orientation, size; by and large’. Did you notice? Say it out loud. The pun was intended. Not particularly offensive – unless, perhaps, you are bi and large and you would rather I hadn’t mentioned it, in which case I apologize. The point is that whilst our expression may be constrained our thought is free and our language is able to run rings around the rules.
But if a hater hides his/her ideas how can I argue? Will Big Brother’s restricted palette of verbal colour really crimestop ungoodthink? Words express ideas but they do not of themselves rein in the idea. Ultimately any Newspeak will surely fail – but at what cost to our lives and liberties? Freedom of expression is the greatest achievement of democracy because with that one freedom we can argue for and defend every other tenet of our beliefs. So, we must fight to maintain every word we know. And welcome and protect those we don’t.
I have the freedom to believe that you should use all the words you have. Keep them in circulation, don’t hide them away. Learn new words and put them about a bit. Offence is in the expression not the vocabulary. Don’t hate, celebrate.
Here’s a true example. Only the slang has been changed to protect the differently innocent…
There was a time, not so long ago, by and large, when the police routinely and offensively referred to certain elements in society, in derogatory ways that could no longer be tolerated in a civilised society. Certainly not PC enough for where the PCs work. Use of the term ‘bi and large bastards’ was officially frowned upon. Station slang abbreviated the unacceptable term to its initials: BLB. It was still offensive, of course, but the words themselves had been sanitized. In time the authorities caught on and BLB too was outlawed as a demeaning category. Too non-PC to speak. Trouble is, to some recalcitrant coppers the BLBs were ‘still BLBs’ whatever anybody else said. Down the nick, not for fear of causing offence but rather more in the spirit of jumping though hoops to keep their jobs, the hurtful category that had become known as still BLBs was euphemistically reduced to stills. The mindset was offensive, the expression of that mindset was offensive. The words made no real difference. Same hate, different vocabulary. Still. True story.
Please believe me, I am not arguing here for freedom to hate. I am arguing against the deliberate or collusive impoverishment of our language. Personally – and I would remind you that this is my blog – I find censorship offensive. It may be that the time will come when our kaleidoscope of liberal values will fall foul of the prevailing establishment. I would hate to think we collaborated in the disabling of our language.
Big Brother used malreported as a word to dismiss inconvenient news media. Now, we see accusations of fake news and alternative facts. No less pernicious than a politican being ‘economical with the truth’. No less oppressive than the propaganda in Oceania that spewed forth from the Ministry of Truth.
More Newspeak 2017
Language that has it both ways is doublespeak. Perhaps the greatest example of current Newspeak doublespeak is Brexit. Trying hard to set political adventuring to one side, let’s concentrate on that word. Brexit.
First there was Grexit, an economist’s compound of Greek and exit favoured by journalists for the discussion of Greece potentially leaving the eurozone. Not the European Union. Big difference. Grexit is an ugly portmanteau word that was far easier on the headline. Even the Greek headlines adopted Grexit. And Grexit was much in the headlines from 2012 on. Still is.
Then, kind of following a Grexit template we got lumped with Brexit.
Br’exit took the Br from Britain or British or British Isles – and already the word has been imbued with a muddled notion of sovereignty. Britain is not a political entity, not in terms of EU membership anyway. That would be Great Britain or more precisely since ‘sovereignty’ has been a point at issue, Great Britain and Northern Ireland … Blah blah blah. In Orwell’s Newspeak that’s duckspeak.
Yet it has been quacked that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ by politicians who patently have no firm or settled notion of what Brexit actually means. This is Newspeak walking hand in wringing hand with doublethink. Brexit is a vague word that can be bent to political will. Yet, really, Brexit means nothing, or too many things, to too many people. It does not define the political will nor the ‘will of the people’ – the vogue doublethink semantics at play do not favour definite or specific meaning.
The establishment too has been let down by this Alice Through the Looking Glass word that means everything and nothing but never quite whatever you want it to mean.
But like the finest items of Newspeak vocabulary this Brexit word seems to have replaced any and all alternatives. So now we struggle to comprehend hard Brexit and unhard Brexit, project fear, and all stations to Free Market Central.
Lexicographers have put Brexit into Dictionaries, even recorded it as one of the ‘Words of 2016’ but still they struggle for a perfect definition. A dictionary maker’s job is to record not proscribe or validate. Inclusion in a dictionary merely acknowledges a word’s existence and offers a definition based on recorded use. Collins Dictionary got Brexit down to: ‘the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union’. However, whatever your point of view, Brexit encompasses or connotes ill-defined nuances of process, national identity, splendid isolationism, xenophobia and outright racism. And, honestly, the Brexit word is not up to the job. And that is kind of its Newspeak point, isn’t it.
A remoaner is a UK citizen who argues for the UK (etc) to remain in the European Union. In short, a dissatisfied naysayer, and one who is opposed to the current political orthordoxy. The word, remoaner – geddit? a groaning, weaponised pun – is Newspeak 2017 at its absolute finest. Let’s face it, intelligent debate is not the way of many of the brexiteering bastards in modern Oceania but the word remoaner can be tactically discharged by any prole. It is thought to have the power to neutralize any logical or ideological argument made by a majority of the country, and who, by definition (and arithmetic, if you prefer; and including in their number the not-then-pm Theresa May) did not vote in favour of Brexit – soft, hard, vague, extreme or whatever. Remoaner is Newspeak in action: language intended to defeat the will, to remove our identity. How can you argue with the offensively facile charge of remoaner? You lost your country, get over it.
Seize the word, my fellow remoaners. We moan, we remain, we moan again.
Don’t worry: my blogxit is nigh. The truth is that there have been a few moments when this blog couldn’t quite tell where we were heading. That’s what happens when words are divorced from meaning. I blame Brexit. What’s more I blame all the brexiteering bastards – sorry, is that offensive? How about if I call them BBs? – is that better? Whatever.
In Oceania Big Brother is sometimes still referred to as BB.
There is no certainty that Big Brother was ever anything more than a personification of a political regime; a well-marketed, anthropomorphic representation of the nation, the people and the spirit of Oceania; a national symbol a bit like John Bull (or Uncle Sam for those with a different set of linguistic problems). When governments fear loss of control it is always doublepluseasy to bellyfeel a big lie if John Bull says so. You can write that on the side of bus.