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Big Sister Is Listening to You

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Each word has its own particular emphasis, a specific definition, and a subtle yet distinct connotation. In communication, one word can’t be swapped for another without altering, in a small or great way, the meaning of the concept being conveyed, or without at least casting it in a different hue.

The close link between clarity in language and clarity of thought has not been lost on power-seekers of all stripes. Love him or hate him, Saul Alinsky was spot on when he wrote, “He who controls the language controls the masses.” History has proved him right on this score: The social acceptance of homosexuality was made possible in no small part by the substitution of the word gay for homosexual in popular discourse. The latter term simply sounds weird whereas the former sounds friendlier and connotes happiness. Likewise, the debate over abortion was decisively swayed when its advocates began calling themselves pro-choice. Anyone can be against abortion, but who could be against choice?

“The thought finds the words,” the poet Robert Frost once wrote. But when words are controlled — suppressed, eliminated, replaced for others — the converse of Frost’s dictum takes hold: The words help form the thought. So now we talk of abortion rights and marriage equality; these suggestive descriptors have helped form public opinion on these topics of high controversy. The controller of language controls the masses by redefining or, in some cases, limiting the very thoughts in their heads.

George Orwell explored this theme to great effect in his novel 1984. The totalitarian government of Oceania, in order to rein in dissent and advance its peculiar form of socialism, pared down the English language, reducing it to an attenuated version of its former glory, which it called Newspeak. “The whole aim of Newspeak,” explains Syme, a government linguist, “is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” Thoughtcrime is any idea at variance with the creed of the ruling party — an idea that need not be acted upon or even given expression in order to be considered a crime. Control the speech, control the thought, and the masses are made malleable for Big Brother’s purposes.

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