Do Words Change Our Responses to Violence and Injustice?   By Joyce F. Elferdink

Doublespeak_From a book cover on Doublespeak by Matthew Feldman                                      cover

Scene 1; Take I

 Awakened by my alarm set for WHYD 89.9 FM, the station that usually bore me gently back to the living, instead shocked me into a fully awake state today with this news flash:

A bomb exploded last night in Our Savior Catholic Church, killing at least 220 persons. Most of the dead are high school students who were practicing for a fundraising concert to continue Mother Teresa’s work in Calcutta. No group has yet taken credit for this heinous act, although evidence points to an anti-gay group. Our Savior’s priest who allowed the church to sponsor meetings of Until Love is Equal is among the dead. Most of the families of the dead teens were already reeling from the announcement last week by Heinz Distillers NA that positions for 700 of the 1476 currently employed locally will be abolished by month end and the lines moved overseas. With unemployment in the area already at a twenty hear high, the surviving family members will become poor overnight. The company’s CEO, Nicholas Nastii, defended the firings as necessary to remain competitive. He was quoted as saying, “Our wage expenses were too high, especially when the jobs required a level of expertise unavailable. We’ve contracted with Employment Services to help those being downsized find more suitable jobs.”


Scene 1; Take II

Awakened by my alarm set for WHYD 89.9 FM, I brushed my teeth as I half listened to the announcer discuss last night’s news. Something about an incident that occurred somewhere in the area…

Student workers—as many as 220–have been reclassified as collateral damage. The youth were practicing for a concert in a faith-based facility when the mishap occurred. This comes at a very bad time for most of the families. Many of the teens and their parents were employed by Heinz Distillers NA. The company, the region’s major employer, just last week announced plans to outsource fifty percent of its bottling unit to the U.S., a very large end user and said to have cheaper immigrant labor. Surveys of families affected by the mishap and downsizing indicate the majority will be forced  into the ranks of the economically disadvantaged.  Heinz CEO says that is not so. “These people only need to revise their employment expectations. Those who are willing to work will be able to afford all necessities.”

How differently did your mind and heart respond when the news reporter used the following terms instead of plain English: Collateral damage  instead of  death and property destruction; downsizing instead firing; economically disadvantaged instead of poor; mishap instead of catastrophe. There’s also outsourced and faith-based, which some would label doublespeak.

This is my attempt at doublespeak, a term that combines George Orwell’s ‘doublethink’ and ‘newspeak’ that he originated for his political novel 1984.” As he saw it: “Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” (George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946)

In 1974, the National Council of Teachers of English established a Doublespeak Award, given annually to “public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.” Recipients have included the CIA, Exxon Corporation, the U.S. Department of Defense (three times), Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Glenn Beck.
[Retrieved from]

What person or organization would you nominate for the Doublespeak Award, whether public speakers, writers, or  other “taxpayers”—oops, are all citizens taxpayers? And please explain the criteria for your selection.


Joyce Elferdink’s Bio:

This author thinks of herself as a teacher, apprentice, traveler and activist. Her inspiration comes from life experiences and an overactive imagination (nothing new to authors) and by the diverse novels she reads (but primarily science fiction). This summer she was stunned to receive an Excellence in Teaching award from her employer, Davenport University. Now if she could only get one of those equally prestigious awards for her novel, Pieces of You or the one just begun, The Battle of Jericho, 2035. Actually, her primary purpose for writing is to make readers think about questions we all may be asking.





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17 thoughts on “Do Words Change Our Responses to Violence and Injustice?   By Joyce F. Elferdink

  1. Kenneth Weene

    As an author, I am very careful to think about the words I use. However, it leads to bad writing if we become too careful. Good writing requires stirring the emotions of the reader, especially when writing fiction and poetry.

  2. Charline Ratcliff

    A well-written piece by Joyce and I certainly understand the thought behind it. Unfortunately (and I may take some flack and I do apologize), but I don’t always agree with the premise of doublespeak.
    I, too, do not enjoy having my morning peace shattered by horrific news. However, it is also a person’s choice to use a radio station that can potentially announce disruptive news during the morning wake up ‘alarm.’ The announcers didn’t just show up in the bedroom – they were allowed in.
    While I certainly appreciate the thought behind the ‘softening’ of the heinous act – I don’t agree with it. 220 people were murdered without regard for their life or the lives of their family, friends, etc. That news should(!) be shocking! Plus, it seems that the more we try and ‘soften’ things like this, the more over-the-too these crimes against humanity become because the disturbed people making them happen want the shock value.
    I’m not saying that it’s right – I’m just saying that in instances like the one mentioned we need to hold tight to our shock and horror. One: the victims deserve our heartfelt emotions and two: it helps us come together and hopefully try to prevent future events like this.

  3. James Secor

    Charline nicely sidestepped the news doublespeak, found in the 2nd scene, calling the 220 dead students “collateral damage,” a sickeningly inhuman phrase that is constantly fed into our consciousness in reporting on war. People who want to soften things are escaping reality. As to the radio: Charline seems to think that the “I” of the story is responsible for the station’s programming.
    No one bothered to nominate anyone, just praise the writing, which is pretty straightforward. So. . .I nominate for the Doublespeak Award Big PHRMA for masking side-effects and including death by the drug as a side-effect (collateral damage?) and lying about their testing via paying doctors or “proof by omission” logic (that is, only including the good outcomes to the FDA). Big PHRMA doesn’t give a damn, as long as money is made. Further is the extortion laid on our shoulders by price: the US is the only “civilized, advanced” country in the world where there is NO ceiling on price. In the US, Big PHARMA can charge whatever it wants–and it does. So, Big PHRMA, for it’s “take this, it’s good for you” washing over of the death-defying (in some cases) side-effects.

  4. Diane Piron-Gelman

    A timely topic–and challenge–to raise. Words have power, as do stories, and we wield them with that truth in mind.

    As to my “doublespeak” nomination… I’m not certain which politicians were specifically responsible for this (the same as those who introduced it?), but I nominate the people who drafted and titled the PATRIOT Act back in 2001. The full acronym is as follows: USA PATRIOT Act…Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.

    The “tools” (such a harmless-sounding word!) include much of our increasingly pervasive surveillance machine; “appropriate” is a weasel word if ever I heard one; and “intercept and obstruct” don’t begin to convey the ugly reality of what can happen to people detained, for example, as “material witnesses” or because they are non-US citizens whom the Attorney General believes may cause a terrorist act, and may therefore be imprisoned indefinitely. As to “uniting and strengthening America,” at the very least the Act has caused enough controversy to give the lie to the first, and undermines the values of our country, which weakens rather than strengthens it.

  5. Cynthia B Ainsworthe

    Thoroughly enjoyed this piece. The vanilla washing of news commentary disturbs me. Killing is taking of life, and not collateral damage, as one would envision property in ruin. Those consumed with the concept of political correctness to avoid harsh feelings from others, contribute to facts being blurred.

  6. Charline Ratcliff

    James, had I not been five minutes away from walking into a medical appointment I might have elaborated more.

    With that said, I don’t feel that I “sidestepped the news doublespeak.” I did, in fact, state (quite plainly) that while I understand the ‘thought’ behind the ‘softening’ of such a heinous act – “I do not agree with it.” Victims deserve to be respected and one way that this happens is by having/showing/feeling heartfelt emotions. Substituting words and/or phrases simply muddies the water and takes the focus off the important thing: that 220 people were maliciously (and with aforethought) murdered. That is what needs to be expressed. (With no ‘softening’ of the situation).

    As far as your statement: “Charline seems to think that the “I” of the story is responsible for the station’s programming.”

    James, please do not put words in my mouth as that was NOT what I said. I said: “it is also a person’s choice to use a radio station that can potentially announce disruptive news during the morning wake up ‘alarm.'” There is a huge difference…

    Just as television viewers choose the stations they wish to watch, so to do radio listeners choose the station they will listen to. And even with us ‘choosing’ the stations of our choice and comfort, in today’s day and age, the reality of it is that there might be times when the normalcy of our preferred channel/station is shattered by horrific and/or disturbing news.

    The point I was attempting to make is that we shouldn’t fault the person relating the news – we (the listener) made the choice to have a radio program (featuring live people which always provides the possibility of hearing less than happy news) as a morning wake-up call.

    And as far as nominations – seriously, where does one even begin? That’s like a two-ton can of worms that I really didn’t feel like opening … but thanks for your critique.

  7. Micki Peluso

    Joyce, I’m glad to see someone attack this situation as it’s long overdue. You did a superb job in expressing the deliberate platform used by the media, for one, to twist the ugly truths in such a way that their particulars agendas will form the minds of the public. You asked us to pick one but I believe the media has the most power and responsibility to inform the people of this country what is actually happening without throwing in their own political opinions about it. I wrote commentary for two newspapers for many years and still do to some degree. I chose commentary because I wanted to give my readers both sides, yet lead them to my way of thinking. That is not news!! When I wrote news articles the facts were presented, gory if needed, always true and unslanted. Yet that is exactly what the media does today—all of them, no matter the political affiliation–which should not be a part of presenting news. Freedom of the press today means telling their own versions in any form they choose.
    And it’s a travesty!! Thanks for letting me rant. And yes, they have ‘doublespeak’ down to a science.

  8. Yves

    Thanks for this wonderful piece. We don’t need to look at the media for doubletalk. We (well, I do) deal with this in my daily life and work. It’s rather frustrating. This combined with the dreaded PC and those bending over backwards to appear sympathetic for ever social issues make things very difficult. Thanks for at least opening up a dialogue on this issue.

  9. Monica Brinkman

    I’ve often chuckled to myself when hearing the government, media and political parties create their own adjectives and nouns. One of the all time worst, to me, is friendly fire. Come on, nothing friendly about it. They are not writing novels, they are reporting news, reports or a political stance and need to be open and honest without attempting to deceive.

    Wonderful piece.

  10. Salvatore Buttaci

    Joyce, I don’t believe I could ever read something you’ve written and not enjoy it. As for doubletalk, it serves to take the directness out of the message and to render it more palpable to the audience. This is true also in the soft-pedaling today of morality. Sins in society are considered acceptable and woe to those who refuse to buckle under! They are accused of intolerance, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy.

  11. Joyce Elferdink

    I am extremely grateful for all who have responded so far to this blog entry! As I said in my bio, my primary purpose for writing is to make readers think about questions we all may be asking; therefore, my mission here is accomplished!

    But I love a good discussion, especially when the “stakes are so high,” meaning the topic is vitally important. And what is more relevant…at least for writers, than the words we choose. (It’s one of the few things we have control over.) As an anonymous writer has said, “a choice of words is also a choice of worlds.” What part can writers (and teachers) play in reducing the use of words meant to diminish, delay, or destroy active responses to the inequities and horrors so rampant in our world?

  12. Martha Love

    Excellent writing, Joyce, and yes you are a master at getting people to think! I believe I was in the first grade when I first heard double talk that was used to make a situation sound less severe than it was—maybe we should “hold her back” were the words I overheard my mother and teacher say. I knew this meant I might be failing the 1st grade and always hated that phrase ever since (although fortunately for me they did not make me repeat it). Of course, one of the worse and most disgusting of these double talk phrases is “Ethnic Cleansing” instead of saying genocide, and their is nothing clean about it.

  13. John B. Rosenman

    Joyce, I enjoyed your post. George Orwell also wrote an essay about euphemisms and dishonest language called “Politics and the English Language” which is write or right up this essay’s alley. Some euphemisms we lean on for comfort. We don’t want to hear that our loved one is “dead.” We prefer to say that he or she “passed on” or “went on to their greater reward” or “is in a better place” or some such evasion. In U. S. military action, I believe it’s been said we didn’t “bomb” the enemy, but we “pacified” them, or something like that.

    I’m an English professor, and years ago, I was one of several who were fired or canned at a particular university, which I hereby nominate but will not name. Oh, excuse me, I was not fired or canned. I was not even “let go.” It was something like “released” or my contract was not renewed, I can’t remember for sure. But I do remember what those whose contracts were not renewed were called. We were not people or human beings. We were “units.” Think about that one. Units were part of the collateral damage.

    1. Martha Love

      That is horrible, John, to call the people who had non renewal of a contract “units”, and in an educational environment where de-humanization absolutely should not be going on. Sorry this happened to you. I too have had “non-renewing” of a teaching contract. It seems to be their preferred way to sweep people out when new administrations with different agendas come into colleges and decide to make program changes, with no regard for those “units” who have their lives turned upside-down. Being called a “unit” just adds insult to injury, as the old saying goes. I think many of these double talk terms make the situation feel worse as opposed to lightening it up as they hope to do. People really do recognize lies and deceit and cover-ups.

  14. Marta Merajver-Kurlat

    Joyce, thank you for the content and the literary quality of your article. Doublespeak has been going on for years to serve a twofold, vile purpose; namely, to numb awareness of crude realities and to prevent the speaker from feeling guilty about what he/she is actually saying. Like so many other contrivances, doublespeak reduces personal responsibility. It seems most people feel perfectly fine with that, so we should probably expect it to increase. As teachers and writers, we can do our bit to expose it, with little hope for change in a world that has traded conscience for hypocrisy.


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