What Is Doublespeak?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"Tact is kind," says Julian Burnside, "diplomacy is useful, euphemism is harmless and sometimes entertaining. By contrast, doublespeak is dishonest and dangerous" (Word Watching, 2004). (Cristian Baitg/Getty Images)

Doublespeak is language that's intended to deceive or confuse people. The words used in doublespeak can often be understood in more than one way. 

Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms, unsupported generalizations, or deliberate ambiguity. Contrast with plain English. The word doublespeak is a neologism based on the compounds Newspeak and Doublethink in George Orwell's novel 1984 (1949), though Orwell himself never used the term.

Doublespeak in Government and Politics

Not surprisingly, politics and government provide a perfect canvas for doublespeak, with politicians—even presidents—using the practice to prevaricate and obfuscate their real meaning.

Political Doublespeak

  • "Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." (George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946)
  • "Employing Orwellian 'doublespeak,' the Texas Department of Agriculture issued a press release that simultaneously touted its efforts to combat child obesity while also lifting a decade-old ban on deep fat fryers in public schools. Because nothing slims a child’s waist faster than a helping of French fries." (Mark Bittman, "What We’re Reading Now." The New York Times, June 25, 2015)

President Harry Truman's Secretary of Semantics

  • "I have appointed a Secretary of Semantics--a most important post. He is to furnish me with forty to fifty dollar words. Tell me how to say yes and no in the same sentence without a contradiction. He is to tell me the combination of words that will put me against inflation in San Francisco and for it in New York. He is to show me how to keep silent--and say everything. You can very well see how he can save me an immense amount of worry." (President Harry S Truman, December 1947. Quoted by Paul Dickson in Words From the White House. Walker & Company, 2013)

Using Doublespeak as a Negotiating Tactic

  • "During the weeks of negotiations, the usual intercourse of policy deliberation . . . was interrupted. It was replaced by poker-table communication: Instead of saying what they wanted, Europe’s leaders engaged in doublespeak, saying things publicly to strengthen their negotiating position in Brussels, even if those things were often at odds with their actual intent and thoughts." (Anna Sauerbrey, "European Political Poker." The New York Times, August 9, 2015)

Explaning Doublspeak

William Lutz, a noted American linguist, defined doublespeak as "language which pretends to communicate but doesn't." Others have also offered explanations as to what the practice is and how it works—and how to avoid it.

Using Language to Obscure the Facts

  • "Doublespeak is language which pretends to communicate but doesn't. It is language which makes the bad seem good, the negative seem positive, the unpleasant seem unattractive, or at least tolerable. It is language which avoids, shifts or denies responsibility; language which is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language which conceals or prevents thought.
  • "Doublespeak is all around us. We are asked to check our packages at the desk 'for our convenience' when it's not for our convenience at all but for someone else's convenience. We see advertisements for 'preowned,' 'experienced' or 'previously distinguished' cars, not used cars and for 'genuine imitation leather,' 'virgin vinyl' or 'real counterfeit diamonds.'" (William Lutz, "Doubts About Doublespeak." State Government News, July 1993)
  • "With doublespeak, banks don't have 'bad loans' or 'bad debts'; they have 'nonperforming assets' or 'nonperforming credits' which are 'rolled over' or 'rescheduled.'"(William Lutz, The New Doublespeak. HarperCollins, 1996)
  • War and Peace
    "I reminded [the soldiers] and their families that the war in Iraq is really about peace."
    (President George W. Bush, April 2003)

Replacing Tough Mental Images With Cute Terms

  • "A dehumanising system requires a dehumanising language. So familiar and pervasive has this language become that it has soaked almost unnoticed into our lives. Those who do have jobs are also described by the function they deliver to capital. These days they are widely known as 'human resources.'
  • "The living world is discussed in similar terms. Nature is 'natural capital.' Ecological processes are 'ecosystem services,' because their only purpose is to serve us. Hills, forests and rivers are described in government reports as 'green infrastructure.' Wildlife and habitats are 'asset classes' in an 'ecosystems market.' . . .
  • "Those who kill for a living employ similar terms. Israeli military commanders described the massacre of 2,100 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians (including 500 children), in Gaza this summer as 'mowing the lawn.' . . .
  • "The army has developed a technique it calls Shake ‘n Bake: flush people out with phosphorus, then kill them with high explosives. Shake ‘n Bake is a product made by Kraft Foods for coating meat with breadcrumbs before cooking it.
  • "Terms such as these are designed to replace mental images of death and mutilation with images of something else." (George Monbiot, "'Cleansing the Stock’ and Other Ways Governments Talk About Human Beings." The Guardian [UK], October 21, 2014)

Fashionable Doublespeak

  • "[Umbro designer David] Blanch has employed an impressive amount of doublespeak to talk up the technological wizardry of his design. The shirts boast 'intelligent ventilation points,' which look very much like arm holes to you and me. It incorporates 'tailored shoulder darts specifically designed to accommodate the biodynamics of the shoulder.' It's hard to tell from the official pictures, but this ever-so-clever touch appears to be a seam." (Helen Pidd, "New All-White England Kit." The Guardian, March 29, 2009)

Resisting Doublespeak

  • "What can the average receiver do about doublespeak and related scams, swindles, and deceptions, and what should the average persuader/advertiser/blogger and so on do to avoid engaging in it? The Doublespeak Homepage recommends asking the following questions about any piece of persuasion being received or planned:
     1. Who is speaking to whom?
     2. Under what conditions?
     3. Under what circumstances?
     4. With what intent?
     5. With what results?
    If you cannot answer all these questions with ease, or if you feel uncomfortable with the answers, or if you cannot determine any answer to them, you are probably dealing with doublespeak. You had better be prepared to delve deeper, or if you are sending the message, you'd better think about cleaning it up a bit." (Charles U. Larson, Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility, 12th ed. Wadsworth, 2010)  

Examples, Observations, and Related Topics

Pronunciation: DUB-bel SPEK

Also Known As: double talk

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Doublespeak?" ThoughtCo, May. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/doublespeak-language-term-1690475. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, May 9). What Is Doublespeak? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/doublespeak-language-term-1690475 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Doublespeak?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/doublespeak-language-term-1690475 (accessed March 24, 2023).