[This one is for my friend Judd Katz, who passed away not too long ago, and is greatly missed.]

Many years ago, back in the Vietnam Era, Judd and I used to argue quite a bit about how we actually knew things. It was an obvious topic; news of the War was very unreliable, the stories we heard from people who came back didn’t really confirm the Government’s official line; and, as it turned out, the whole enterprise ended badly. My contention back then was that we actually know very little; most of what we think we know actually is passed on to us by other people, who might or might not know what they are talking about. And, of course, we were both young, so I included parents in the critique, as well as the Government. Most likely they were (and are) as badly informed as the rest of us.

Judd more or less agreed, I think, but he trumped my skepticism with a very simple point. You see, Judd was a psychologist, and in his spare time he did a lot of work with what we now call special needs kids. One Friday night, in some bar or another, he produced a piece of paper with two words drawn on it: I think they were green and up.[1] These, he said, are the only words that kid X knows. Imagine what kind of a world view you and I would have if we were restricted to a similar, binomial vocabulary. To the extent that words are necessary for thought, we would be impoverished.

Of course, Judd was dealing with kids who were disabled. In the final analysis some didn’t learn vocabulary, etc. because they couldn’t. But what if we took a random selection of adults from today’s population, and artificially limited their vocabularies? Could we degrade their ability to reason simply by limiting the number of words available to them? I don’t know of any studies on the subject, but I can think of one literary speculation that’s relevant. And that is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four[2].

Actually Orwell wrote two books back in the 1940s that are relevant here. The first, Animal Farm[3] was a fable about farm animals that revolt against the farmer, drive him out, and govern themselves. They begin with a Constitution with 7 Commandments, such as anything on two legs is the enemy, anything with wings or on four legs is a friend, and “All animals are equal.”[4] But, after a period of turmoil, perceived foreign threats (i.e., from humans) and demagoguery, the pigs take control, begin to walk on two legs, and socialize with the human neighbors. And the 7 Commandments are reduced to 1: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”[5] Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

He followed this with Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book that most people have heard about[6], but many haven’t read. In it he describes a future in which the world is divided into three super states. One of them, Oceania, is an amalgam of the United States, Great Britain, and the British Empire. The others are conglomerations of the old U.S.S.R and Western Europe, on the one hand; and the major countries of Asia, on the other. All of this grew up after widespread atomic war, but apparently such weapons were not being used in 1984. Nevertheless, the three super-states are continually at war with one another and this, of course, promotes unity at home. There’s nothing like a good foreign war to keep the people united.

Oceania, where the novel takes place, is a highly structured society. There’s a Supreme Leader (aka Big Brother); his inner circle (about 2% of the population); a subservient middle class (about 13%); and the great mass of workers.[7] So how does a relatively small minority control the great mass of people? Well, of course Orwell sets up the usual machinery for that sort of thing: a Ministry of Peace, to wage war; a Ministry of Plenty, to regulate the economy, rationing and starvation; a Ministry of Love, to deal with law, order and torture; and a Ministry of Truth, to provide the propaganda that supports everything else.

Of course, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel, and therefore fiction; but Orwell didn’t make it all up. He had historical parallels for the various Ministries, most likely from the old Soviet Union. But really, we’re all familiar with the basic ideas; we all know about war, collapsing economies, law and order, propaganda, and – unfortunately – about torture. One could argue that George Orwell had little to say that was new about those subjects.

But his thoughts about language were something else.  He said that Oceania would have to develop a new one to control its populace. “Newspeak,” he called it. Its purpose would be to “provide a medium of expression for the world view and mental habits” proper to the current ideology, “and to make all other modes of thought impossible.”[8] And how does one do that? Well, by inventing new words, eliminating undesirable ones, and by “stripping such words as remained of all secondary meanings whatsoever.”[9] Deprive the people of these constructs, and you limit their ability to reason about current events, national policy, and so forth.

How was it supposed to work? Simplify, simplify, simplify! Consider the word “good.” You can do away with its contraries, evil, bad, mistaken, unfortunate, sour, poorly cooked, etc. by substituting un-good for all of them. That makes conversation easier, because it eliminates subtlety, and minimizes the chance that the speaker might make a doctrinal error in a particular case. And what if a speaker wants to signify goodness over and above the normal? Does he say better, excellent, outstanding, or anything like that? No, he limits himself to good, plus-good or, possibly, in really good situations, double plus-good. No details required.

Do we have any modern examples of people wandering from English into newspeak? Oh, lots of them. It’s especially prevalent with our political and chattering classes. Take, for example, the recent furor over the NSA’s obsession with accumulating vast quantities of data generated by Americans and others who telephone or email one another. This data is important, we’re told, because with it the NSA can discern patterns of behavior and detect possible terrorist activity. But the NSA doesn’t “collect” it unless it first obtains a warrant from the secret court.

Let’s see, NSA doesn’t collect this kind of thing, but it has lots of it on hand to look at when it gets a warrant to do so. Well, how does it come by all that data, stored in classified facilities around the country, and perhaps the world? Basically, it tries not to discuss the matter. Apparently it has only one verb in its authorized lexicon, i.e., “to collect;” perhaps everything else is “un-collecting?”

Now, you and I might take a more subtle approach. We might say, for example, “OK, NSA, you might want to assign a specialized meaning to the term “collect” for intelligence purposes. Fine, but you still should explain how you get all that data stored in your basement(s). There are lots of words that might describe the process. You know, like gather amass, assemble, accumulate, bring together, or pull together; or save, hoard, stockpile, store, treasure, have a collection of, have a passion for, or be obsessed with. Check your handy Thesaurus; I’m sure you’ll find even more descriptions that fit. In any case, describe what you do.

So what would Big Brother, if he existed, think of the NSA’s approach to today’s controversy? He would approve, I think. The purpose of language is to limit discussion to acceptable topics, so therefore NSA is within its rights to divert attention from the size of its data base to the relatively small number of cases where it actually gets a warrant to examine its hoard. No doubt he would rate NSA as double plus-good in the public relations department.

The rest of us, however, probably don’t agree. The secrets, or at least some of them are out, and more probably are on the way. We’d like to know more about how much information the Government actually keeps on us, and for how long.[10] And we’d like to know more about how they use it, how many terrorists they catch in a year, and how many false positives they generate.

And don’t tell us we should trust the NSA, and we have nothing to fear if we’re innocent. The NSA is made up of human beings, and my guess is not all of them are reliable. Certainly recent events demonstrate that it leaks pretty badly.[11] So why should we trust them with our personal and private information?[12] It’s sort of like letting TSA take nude pictures of passengers at airports. It’s wretched excess with no discernible payoff.


[1] I’m only guessing. I remember there were two, but I’m not confident I remember which ones. So, the ones I give are there simply by way of illustration. Any way you slice it, two words are not a lot.

[2] There are numerous editions of this book, and some are still in print. I’m using one from a local public library. It’s Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Harcourt, Brace, 1949). Page citations will be to the version we have on loan (apparently the first U.S. edition) and will follow our usual convention, i.e., cite to 1984 at ___.

[3] There are numerous editions of this book, and some are still in print. I’m using one from a local public library. It’s Orwell, Animal Farm (Harcourt, Brace, 1946) (Signet, paperback). Page citations will be to the Signet version we have on loan and will follow our usual convention, i.e., cite to Animal Farm at ___.

[4] See Animal Farm at p. 33.

[5] See Animal Farm at p. 123

[6] For a general description of the book, go to Wikipedia and search Nineteen Eighty-Four, or simply click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineteen_Eighty-Four

[7] Thanks to Wikipedia for the breakout. See note 6.

[8] See 1984 at Appendix, The Principles of Newspeak, p. 301 & 303.

[9] See 1984 at Appendix, The Principles of Newspeak, p. 303: “Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”

[10] Currently it’s said that the information is kept for only 5 years. If true, I expect that’s because NSA’s storage facilities currently wouldn’t hold any more. But, under Moore’s Law computing power is supposed to double every two years, more or less. See the discussion in Wikipedia under Moore’s Law, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_Law   So today’s 5 year limitation could become 6 years in 2014, or 7 years in 2015, etc.

[11] See, e.g., ABC News, Cohen, Is Search for Snowden Turning Into Sideshow? (June 29, 2013) at http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/search-snowden-turning-sideshow-19530635?.tsrc=telkomsel See also The New York Times, Asia Pacific, Baker, Barry & Others, Snowden, in Russia, Seeks Asylum in Ecuador (June 23, 2013) at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/world/asia/nsa-leaker-leaves-hong-kong-local-officials-say.html?_r=2&

[12] See The Guardian, Greenwald, NSA collected US email records in bulk for more than two years under Obama (27 June 2013) at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/27/nsa-data-mining-authorised-obama?CMP=twt_gu

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