Free the Dictionary

CNN is now apologizing for the use of the word “crosshairs” in general political speech, as shown in the video after the “Read More” jump. The implication is that the word itself has been used to facilitate a hate crime. That is untrue, as former New York City Mayor Ed Koch observes. But maybe the belief is that if a lie is repeated for long enough then it eventually becomes true. Then power follows. “Real power is the ability to define what the fight is about.” The entire discussion moves into a rigged casino. Control words and you control truth. George Orwell understood this so well that he believed one of the first things every totalitarian ideology does is redefine the words in a language, purposefully, forcefully and relentlessly. In his novel 1984, he called this artificial language of totalitarianism Newspeak.


Orwell knew that,as someone once said, “you will not prevail just because you are right. If you know something but cannot communicate it, it’s as though you don’t know it.” Take away the words and you take away the power to express a contrary thought. And the best way to do this is to torture words until they meant what the narrative said they should say; by changing meanings until only the allowable meanings were left. Here is how:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.


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The word “crosshairs” has been singled out for this kind of treatment. It is going to be turned into an unmentionable word, to take its place alongside all the other unutterables in the Newspeak dictionary.  It’s going to be a word that Sarah Palin actually never said to Jared Loughner, but which she said to him. It will be the word that drove him crazy, and not the hallucinogens or the “conscience dreaming” he indulged in. It will be a word that everyone will eventually come to believe that Hitler invented.  And that will be the end of it. The process, according to Orwell, is simple: the word “crosshairs” is going to be thoroughly purged of any politically neutral connotations until it is a simple “hate” word. To use “crosshairs” will henceforward come to mean “to threaten to shoot someone,” whereas to actually threaten to shoot someone will be defined as “victim’s outrage.”

That is how “Oldspeak” words move into the trash can, to be replaced by Newspeak words which hum with progressiveness.  Then one day the very vocabulary for disagreement will have literally disappeared.

When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed. History had already been rewritten, but fragments of the literature of the past survived here and there, imperfectly censored, and so long as one retained one’s knowledge of Oldspeak it was possible to read them. In the future such fragments, even if they chanced to survive, would be unintelligible and untranslatable. It was impossible to translate any passage of Oldspeak into Newspeak unless it either referred to some technical process or some very simple everyday action, or was already orthodox(goodthinkful would be the Newspeak expression) in tendency. In practice this meant that no book written before approximately 1960 could be translated as a whole. Pre-revolutionary literature could only be subjected to ideological translation — that is, alteration in sense as well as language. Take for example the well-known passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government. . .

It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink. A full translation could only be an ideological translation, whereby Jefferson’s words would be changed into a panegyric on absolute government.


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Perhaps the reason why the left is almost incandescently furious at Sarah Palin is because she refuses to play their little game. Since she doesn’t use their dictionary she is pilloried as illiterate. By using Oldspeak words she ipso facto gives offense. It is this stiff-necked refusal to get with the word program that may paradoxically give her the political strength. Those who’ve accepted the vocabulary of politesse, aka Newspeak, have unwittingly surrendered. Pre-surrendered, in fact, for the dubious honor of acceptance into quality society. Maybe being from Alaska, Palin never knew enough politesse to forget a very important principle: “You don’t know what is possible before you try. And if you negotiate with yourself before you negotiate with others, you will never know what was possible.”

Perhaps the real long-term significance of the Loughner affair is that people are finally beginning to realize how insidious these word-games are. I think CNN would do well to outlaw one word in the dictionary per day. When they finally get to zero they may find there are still words they want to get rid of.

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