Orwell 101: Words Matter

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When it’s time to get back to the basics—as I think it is right now—a little dose of George Orwell is always a good place to begin. Indeed, the specter of 1984 hangs heavy these days, so it seems more than worthwhile to reacquaint our students with that novel, and especially with the concepts of Doublethink and Newspeak. Explaining doublethink, Orwell says it is


The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. 


Newspeak is the fictional language Orwell created for the dystopia of Oceania: it makes use of English but is so highly circumscribed and limited that it allows only authorized forms of expression common to IngSoc (English Socialism), suppressing free thought and speech as well as agency. Much of Newspeak, as Orwell points out in 1984, means exactly the opposite of what it says.


The National Council of Teachers of English combined these Orwellian concepts in creating its annual Doublespeak Award in 1974, as a way to “honor” public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.” Last year’s “winner” was—of course—Donald Trump, who may well receive a second award at the end of this year. (The deadline for nominations is September 15, 2017, and I hope teachers of writing across the country will challenge their students to come up with the person most deserving of the award and the very best example of Doublespeak for 2017). Certainly, learning to recognize, analyze, and unpack Newspeak, Doublethink, and Doublespeak must be a major aim of our courses in the coming semesters and years.

Oxford English Dictionary, printed dictionaries, row of hardcover booksTwo other concepts are worth considering as we build pedagogies and curricula for students to use in becoming critically literate citizens. One is “semantic gravitation,” which I learned about from Joseph Bentley and his article “Semantic Gravitation: An Essay on Satiric Reduction.” Bentley’s essay is an analysis of Aldous Huxley’s work, but we can see semantic gravitation atwork in everyday life as well. Basically, Bentley shows how association among words works to exert “gravitation” upward or downward on a particular word or cluster. I saw semantic gravitation at work decades ago when the Oxford English Dictionary first came online in searchable form. Just playing around with it one day, I typed in “woman,” and found—not surprisingly, of course—that this word appears quite infrequently in the OED, which fairly brims with “man.” I extended my search to ask what words were most often found accompanying “woman.” Can you guess what number one was: OLD. Downward semantic gravitation at work. Ask your students to look around today to see which words are “raised” or “lowered” through their association with certain other words. Once they start looking, they will find this force field at work everywhere.


I.A. Richards’s concept of the interinanimation of words is also worth discussing with students. Richards invents the word “interinanimation,” which is one key to his context-based theory of meaning. In one instance, Richards famously says that in any particular sentence, the meaning is what is NOT there. That’s because the meaning grows out of the “interinanimation” of the words in the sentence, which depend on one another to mean. As Richards says, "I conclude then that these expressive or symbolic words get their feeling of being peculiarly fitting from the other words sharing the morpheme which support them in the background of the mind." So it’s very important for student writers to look closely at what words cluster together, at how they “consort” with one another. (Think of “old” and “woman” here.) Meaning for Richards arises out of the context surrounding words; words do not have fixed or absolute meanings but develop meaning in context.


Teachers of writing can use these concepts to generate discussion in class and to create exercises that will help students investigate how they are at work today, and every day. They can choose almost any current topic and gather texts about that topic as data they can analyze. Interested in the Environmental Protection Agency? Gather statements about the agency from its website and from its advocates and opponents, from social media to carefully vetted newspapers. Then see what words are most often associated with the Agency and how they work together to create certain meanings—and evaluations—of the EPA. The same exercise will work for texts on any other topic.


Over the years, I’ve found that students gain agency and empowerment from such exercises, that they are excited to put their minds to work at tracing how meanings build up or accrue. Part of the joy of our jobs is helping them acquire such agency as they learn that, indeed, words matter!

CreditFlickr Image “Oxford English Dictionary” by mrpolyonymous, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.