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Word Engineering: Is it wrong?

January 27, 2010

Word Engineering: Is it wrong?


There is no shortage of people who cannot stand Politically Correct terms and words. Instead of falling down a man hole we look for a gender neutral word to explain. The chairman has become the chairperson (Ironically the term comes from chair-main a gender neutral term that was shortened over the years to chairman). It becomes irritating because the words that some people have invested an entire life using suddenly become obsolete and it is as if we must learn a new language. It also raises many issues about the need and reason that such words should be changed. Are we really better off calling someone completely vision impaired rather than blind? Yet there is an entire industry based around the PC concept of words. There are books, lectures, education programs and even corporate enforced policies, all selling the notion that this is the way to speak.


The concept of changing terms, phrases and words to help engineer social change is not new. Orwell took this concept to its furthest extent in his description of ‘Newspeak’ in the book ‘1984’ and Huxley touched on the same subject in ‘Brave New World’. Both condemned the idea that words should be engineered to create social change. They did not come to this conclusion in isolation and ignorance of the broader world realities. The propaganda of World War 1 and World War 2 was still fresh in people minds. True reports of Stalin’s workers paradise conflicted with the image portrayed by their carefully orchestrated press releases and indoctrinations. Mottos and slogans were used to create a sense of obedient purpose and replacement words were used to reduce or increase an emotional response. Germans were expected to great each other with ‘Heil Hitler’ and Soviets were to greet each other with a warm ‘Comrade’. Even going as far back as post revolutionary France the acceptable greeting was ‘Citizen’. These words were designed to show loyalty and ideological alignment to a movement so failure to comply could easily spell trouble. Efficient leaders know that any movement needs loyalty or it begins to disintegrate. Armies concern themselves with the morale of the troops, politicians study opinion polls and tyrants seek out henchmen. Without loyal supporters to carry out the plans the leaders have no power and the movement falls apart.


Common terms have common meaning and with it an association with events or consequences. Calling someone a ‘Nazi’ creates an image of jackboots and death camps, calling someone a ‘Commie’ creates and image of group think and oppression. The negative image is associated with the word even if it is incorrectly used. ‘Left wing popular media’; ‘right wing clergy’; ‘Reactionary’; ‘Hardliner’; ‘Oppressive’ are commonly used in writing to describe what would be little more than a person with a different opinion. The writers are trying to push emotional buttons in the readers in order to demonize the person to a point where they will not be listened to. Who would happily consider them selves a mindless ‘Reactionary’ and who would like to be associated with ‘Oppression’? Conversely there are terms used to soften up the public perception of a person to assist their message being spread. ‘Progressive’; ‘Enlightened’; ‘Moderate’ are words that many would like to be associated with. If the person is give a description that has little to no bearing on what they have to say, but because of this adjective they either gain credibility or lose it?


A major problem with words is their perceived emotional connotations. If someone reports a murder then we are shocked, but if someone else reports the same event as ‘pacification’ we are confused. The event did not change but the description has. There are plenty of historical examples where this has occurred. Something that objectively is one thing is described with words to disguise it as something else, something positive and morally justifiable. ‘It is not a killing but a termination with extreme prejudice’ is a code to hide the fact that it is a killing. The term ‘Newspeak’ or ‘Weasel words’ is often used to describe such twisted perversions of the language. Often they are so obvious that they become laughable but in an age of law, weasel words are used to confuse the public perception of what is legal. Fear plays a big factor in the minds of people as no one would like to be held to account for a crime that they ordered. By using ambiguous words the order was never actually made and it can be blamed on someone else. Guilt may also play a role by avoiding words like: imprisoned, tortured and killed avoid troubling the conscience.


There is a theory that by engineering the words we can engineer thoughts. Words are needed to construct language and language is needed to express thoughts. Oppressive states and even some oppressive cults put a lot of faith in this theory. Professional propagandist work hard to find the word that they require to sell an idea. Some cults have a complete set of internal language that is strictly enforced, even to the point of being unintelligible to the broader society. “If you cannot say it, then you cannot think it,” is the motivation of a totalitarian where thoughts are crimes. However if we ask ‘can a deaf, dumb and blind person think,’ then credibility of this theory falls into question. I leave it to the reader to decide if ‘Politically Correctness’ falls into this category.


We are very clever at trying to deceive our fellow people into unquestioning loyalty. Loyalty is where social power really is. A great speech can be rousing to a crowd but a great scandal can be damaging to the leaders image. Not every scandal can be hidden but that does not stop people trying to avoid the subject and confuse what actually happened. Even if directly implicated, a person can use words to make the scandal seem less than it is and in some cases make it appear as something that should be rewarded. The victim is no longer a victim but something that deserved its fate. The power of words can describe this but does it necessarily mean we should believe them? Or should we find words that better describe what is actually happening?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. samaritan24 permalink
    January 28, 2010 9:06 am

    Hi Damo,

    I type out minutes for council meetings. And there’s sometimes people who stumble over three different words for Chairman, before they come to one they’re happy with. I think politically correct language often just confuses people more than anything else.

    And it can also make people too frightened to talk about something – because they don’t want to be seen as politically incorrect or they don’t know the right terminology to use.

    I don’t usually post links in comments. But there is a very funny Politically Correct Lord’s Prayer here:



  2. January 28, 2010 10:20 am


    Thanks for your comments.
    You link was very funny.

    I have been to so many meeting and work places where PC language becomes the big stick used to beat down opponents.

    In the last we have had this controversy in the paper over the oppositins leaders off the cuff comments about ‘virginity’. Suddenly a whole chorus of people are leaping in trying score cheap political points.

    I also had some funny replies on a post I wrote some time back where some people demanded that I adhere to their PC language. It cracks me up all the time.


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