"Lawfully Speaking" Vol I, Issue No. 3A
Periodic Internet Political Column
Written by William H. and John M. Huff

Last week we discussed the substantial differences between a republic and a democracy as forms of government, emphasizing the unique aspects of our American Constitutional Republic. By properly defining the word "democracy" we are now prepared to examine a broader topic: the deliberate alteration of meanings of words to achieve political or social ends. The extreme version of this practice was referred to as "Newspeak," describing the practices of propaganda in a totalitarian State in George Orwell's uncomfortably prophetic book 1984.

In Orwell's novel the term "Newspeak" referred to a practice used by the government to reduce the amount of words in language in order to inhibit the exercise of independent thought by the public. This had the effect of cutting people off from information about their past and limiting their ability to interact with each other regarding present circumstances. Not only were words given limited definitions, many were eliminated altogether. Using our improved understanding of the word "democracy," we will now examine a quote from a letter written by Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, to see whether the word "democracy" is used in its traditional context, or if we can detect the practice of "Newspeak."


15. Over the last half-century, the meaning of democracy has shifted considerably in world affairs. In 1945, democracy was a clear concept as defined by the Allied nations in opposition to fascism. With the onset of the cold war, democracy came to be propounded from two perspectives, East and West. As the third world took its place on the international stage, its members strove to find their own methods of government, appropriate to their needs, providing in the process alternative perspectives on democracy. Today, the rapidly changing global scene has set the age-old concept of democracy in a new light. While differences in the economic, social, cultural and historical circumstances of the world's societies mean that differences will continue between democracy as viewed by one society and democracy as viewed by another, democracy is increasingly being recognized as a response to a wide range of human concerns and as essential to the protection of human rights.

16. This is not to say that democracy is without its detractors. In some quarters, the charge is made that... democracy violates minority and community rights... However, whatever evidence critics of democracy can find in support of these claims must not be allowed to conceal a deeper truth: democracy contributes to preserving peace and security, securing justice and human rights, and promoting economic and social development." (emphasis added)

After reading his quote, it is difficult to determine if Mr. Annan has arrived at any definition of democracy. It seems to be more like double-talk than Newspeak. Item number 15 says that democracy means different things to different people. Item 16 says that democracy, whatever it may be, is criticized as being dangerous to minority groups. It then challenges this view by claiming that democracy secures justice and human rights. One question that arises is whether democracy which by its nature endangers the individual and minority can "secure justice and human rights." Perhaps he meant it would secure only the human rights of the majority. Or more likely he is using the word democracy in a broad, almost meaningless sense.

The purpose of including the quote by Mr. Annan is to demonstrate how the ignorance of the basic definitions of words, especially important ones such as those used to describe forms of government, is pervasive in our society. When those in positions of public responsibility, and the public, cannot agree on the definitions of words, everyone in the process becomes the potential target of political manipulation. An alternative to Newspeak's reduction of words and definitions would be to expand the number of definitions of words until no one is capable of arriving at a certain meaning for what they read. This would be another method to achieve the same objective of controlling communication.

Along these lines, there was a recent news article about a dictionary being created by Microsoft called the "World English Dictionary." A quote from the article reads:

"Anne Soukhanov, the dictionary's general editor, said: 'Language changes sometimes hourly in a world no longer nationally defined but international in character. For the first time in history, dictionary editors around the world linked by computers and special software have developed a record of world English, the communications medium of the 21st century.'

She added that it will contain separate definitions for words that have different regional meanings. 'If someone in the Caribbean told you that you're ignorant, it doesn't mean you're dumb, it means you're aggressively quarrelsome.'"

Before continuing it is interesting to note that the writer of the article seems to be ignorant of the meaning of the word "ignorant." Is the process already working? The word ignorant doesn't mean to be dumb or aggressively quarrelsome. According to Noah Webster it means "destitute of knowledge or uninformed; untaught; unenlightened."

The "Bill Gates Dictionary" will have to be "refreshed" every couple of hours to determine the meaning of a word much like one would refresh a web site in an internet browser to get an update. Will this dictionary improve the quality of communication? If Mr. Annan is consulted for the definition of "democracy" I hope Microsoft has adequate space in their dictionary for his various definitions.

Intentionally or unintentionally, providing ambiguous or altered definitions of words greatly inhibits communication. It confuses matters and removes people from a knowledge of history and the majority of information resources simply because they don't understand the traditional meanings of words. Sure they have "free access" to information in abundance, but what benefit is derived if they cannot understand the definitions of the words being used? Even more disturbing is the fact that readers might happily come away believing their false views and flawed conclusions are absolutely correct.

The answer to these problems in the United States is to have ready access to a dictionary that provides the proper definitions of words based on their origins in root languages and their uses in historical documents. This provides a common reference while at the same time protecting the reader from changes in language that have significant effects, such as the modern references to our form of government as a democracy. One such resource used extensively at LEXREX is Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. This dictionary is prescriptive, meaning that it contains the meanings of words based on their origins and traditional use. Mr. Webster was so conscientious about keeping the purity of language that he coined only one word in his long life: demoralize.

There is a difference between the use of slang and the deliberate alteration of meanings for political purposes. However, the end result is the same. Those members of the public who are not familiar with the traditional meanings are swept away in the popular tides of modern use. Unless some one enters the picture who can point out the significance of the original meanings of certain words the public will benefit but little from efforts to study an historical document such as the Constitution.

Another excellent warning about the destruction of language and history is presented by the novel Fahrenheit 451. In the novel, rather than limit the vocabulary the government simply burns all the books.

Recently I read a cartoon that compared our present culture to Fahrenheit 451. The cartoonist drew a similar conclusion to the one I made about public access to information being useless without a knowledge of precise word meanings. In the cartoon a child being taken by his mother from bookstore to bookstore, exasperated, finally says, "Mom, where am I going to find Fahrenheit 451 to do my book report?"

As the body of information available for human consumption continues to grow geometrically, while communication becomes more difficult because of the deliberate evolution of the definitions of words, anyone who has a vested interest in controlling the masses will find his job mostly done. No one will need to burn all the books when there is no one left who understands them.

Additional links:

American Newspeak: Online "e-zine" presenting news stories validating Orwell's prophecies.

Upcoming computer game "Big Brother" based on George Orwell's 1984.

Full text of 1984 (accuracy unverified).

Article about Mel Gibson producing a feature film based on Fahrenheit 451. Here's a Q&A with the author Ray Bradbury about the screenplay. Note: The project is currently on hold, as of October, 1999.