Most readers will be familiar with George Orwell’s concept of Newspeak, that diabolical instrument of totalitarian control that focuses on the primary instrument humans use to understand and communicate about the world they share: language. Newspeak, Orwell explains in 1984, operates “partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained or unorthodox meanings.”
When I first read 1984 in high school, the gruesome scenes in which Winston is tortured and broken made the the most vivid impression on me. But as time has passed, I have come to think that Orwell’s dissection of Newspeak is even more terrible. The examples Orwell used–“War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” etc.–were the sort of bald contradictions that most adolescents cheerfully accommodate because they haven’t the foggiest idea of what they really mean or what a world in which people seriously believed that war is peace, or freedom is slavery, would be like. Heck, growing up in a small coastal town in Maine in the 1960s, most adolescents didn’t really have any clear idea what “war” or “peace” or “freedom” or “slavery” was. I know I didn’t. They were abstractions you could define, if someone asked, but you were happy to accept the contradiction of their conjunction because, deep down, you were innocent of their awful implications.
In any event, that bit of Orwell’s book now strikes me as singularly grim because I now see the process he anatomizes at work all around me. Let me give three examples.
One: Last winter, Department of Homeland Security issued a document called “Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims.” While you ponder why the Department of Homeland Security is gathering recommendations about how to combat radical Islam from American Muslims, let me mention a few things this document recommends.
Because we are supposed to be “communicating with, not confronting,” Muslims, the document advises us not to “insult or confuse them with pejorative terms such as ‘Islamo-fascism.’ which are considered offensive by many Muslims.” The word “progress” is OK, but–George Orwell, where are you?–“the experts consulted” rejected the word “liberty” “because because many around the world would discount the tern as a buzzword for American hegemony.”
Breathtaking isn’t it? Those leading the fight against terrorism assure us that “The fact is that Islam and secular democracy are fully compatible–in fact, they can make each other stronger.” But where is the evidence of that? In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President Bush went to a mosque and told his audience that “Islam” meant “peace.” Perhaps that was an emollient thing to do. Unfortunately, it is not true. Islam means “total submission to the will of Allah,” and absent that submission what Muslims give us is not peace but jihad.
While emissaries from the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security are making Herculean efforts not to do or say anything of “offend Muslims,” radical Muslims are busy extending the list of things they are offended by while also seeking new ways to insinuate elements of Sharia law into the West–a mode of theocratic imposition that, far from being “fully compatible” with secular democracy, is something closer to its antithesis.
My second example is a seasonal one. In a recent column, Mark Steyn pointed out that the mighty Amazon.com is advertising a special music sale called “The Twelve Days Of Holiday“. (Hat tip for this to Instapundit.) This is what happens when you bend over backwards to mollify multicultural sensitivities. The linguistic absurdity (“On the first day of holiday, my true love gave to me . . .”) is not fortuitous: it is the presenting symptom of that moral illness that underlies the whole enterprise. In a later column, Mark reports that a reader who complained to Amazon about the excision of the word “Christmas” received this canned response from Amazon:
Please accept our sincere apologies if you were offended by the use of the word “Christmas” on our website. Our intention in referring to Christmas is to give specific ordering guidance for a specific holiday, not to exclude other faiths.
Pass the air-sickness bag, what? In the nineteenth century, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard expended a lot of ink criticizing his countrymen for pretending that they were Christians when in fact they lived as thoughtless hedonists. I wonder what Kierkegaard would have to say could he make a brief tour through the remains of Christendom today? At least his fellow Copenhageans gave lip service to Christianity. (I’ve always thought there was a lot to be said for lip service: for one thing, it makes the practice of genuine devotion much more practicable.)
My third example was brought to my attention by my friend Dawn Eden. A new English children’s dictionary published by Oxford University Press, the London Telegraph reported yesterday, has dropped many many words “associated with Christianity, the monarchy and British history.” Banished are such words as “aisle” (those things running between lines of pews), “bishop”, “chapel”, “empire,” and “monarch.” But the Junior Dictionary is happy to welcome such new comers as “blog”, “broadband,” and “celebrity.”
The Telegraph quotes Professor Alan Smithers from Buckingham University: “We have a certain Christian narrative which has given meaning to us over the last 2,000 years. To say it is all relative and replaceable is questionable. The word selections are a very interesting reflection of the way childhood is going, moving away from our spiritual background and the natural world and towards the world that information technology creates for us.”
“Interesting” is one word for it. “Dismaying” might be more to the point, or even “horrified” the word applied by one mother who has tallied differences among Junior Dictionaries going back to 1978. It’s not only words that carry and help preserve Britain’s religious heritage and identity as a Christian nation: also gone missing are words that describe the natural environment. “Moss” and “fern” and “sycamore” are out in favor of words from the realm of virutal relaity: MP3 player, e.g., and voicemail, and chatroom.
The Telegraph supplies this tally:
Words taken out:
Carol, cracker, holly, ivy, mistletoe
Dwarf, elf, goblin
Abbey, aisle, altar, bishop, chapel, christen, disciple, minister, monastery, monk, nun, nunnery, parish, pew, psalm, pulpit, saint, sin, devil, vicar
Coronation, duchess, duke, emperor, empire, monarch, decade
adder, ass, beaver, boar, budgerigar, bullock, cheetah, colt, corgi, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, gerbil, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, porcupine, porpoise, raven, spaniel, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.
Acorn, allotment, almond, apricot, ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry, blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, minnow, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy, porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow
Words put in:
Blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, attachment, database, export, chatroom, bullet point, cut and paste, analogue
Celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, common sense, debate, EU, drought, brainy, boisterous, cautionary tale, bilingual, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic, allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro
Apparatus, food chain, incisor, square number, trapezium, alliteration, colloquial, idiom, curriculum, classify, chronological, block graph
It may seem like a small thing that Amazon.com advertizes a “Twelve Days of Holiday” music sale. And haven’t dictionaries been moving in the direction of being “descriptive” rather “prescriptive” for decades? Sure troglodytes like me always complain, but if young ‘uns no longer encounter such things as moss and ferns and sycamores, if they never set foot in an abbey or encounter a bishop, if they never dream about elves or goblins, or eat cauliflower or play with conkers, what’s the big deal? Since they’re strapped to their MP3 players while checking their voicemail and dropping in on their favorite internet chatrooms, shouldn’t a junior dictionary reflect those changes?
Do you believe that? Then you will also believe the US State Department when it tells you that Islam and secular democracy are “fully compatible” and that “liberty” should be avoided because its a synonym for “American hegemony.” Yesterday, I made mention of something called “The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.” I, too, thought it little more than a (bad) joke when I first heard about it. More and more, though, I wonder whether it is making far greater, if largely covert, inroads into civilization than we had ever thought possible. Not, alas, into those civilizations where the Religion of Peace reigns or is making rapid inroads. But many–maybe most–places that had traditionally identified themselves as Christian seem to have surrendered. Is “suicide” still in that junior dictionary? It should be. Twelve days of holiday to spend in the virtual world of a chatroom while emissaries from the religion of peace busy themselves making the laws of your neighborhood fully compatible with the tenets of Sharia law.