"You don't grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?"
Winston Smith, 1984
Donald Trump has never been known for the breadth of his vocabulary. In his case, I’ve always assumed that was a marker of a not particularly curious mind. The guy’s openly contemptuous of higher education; he says he doesn’t read books because he gets what he needs to know from “watch[ing] the shows.” When speaking, he likes to repeat things, uttering the same short sentence or phrase two or three times in the same breath, presumably for emphasis. And his word choices won’t be adding to anyone’s vocabulary. He uses “very” very often, for example, and “very, very” very frequently, too.
Now we learn that the president and his team want to limit everyone else’s vocabulary, as well, starting with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Friday, Lena H. Sun and Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post reported:
Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden terms at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden terms are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
The next day, Sun and Eilperin reported that the word-scrubbing would extend to other divisions of HHS:
A second HHS agency received similar guidance to avoid using “entitlement,” “diversity” and “vulnerable,” according to an official who took part in a briefing earlier in the week. Participants at that agency were also told to use “Obamacare” instead of ACA, or the Affordable Care Act, and to use “exchanges” instead of “marketplaces” to describe the venues where people can purchase health insurance.
It’s one thing to have a house writing style and to impose a certain amount of consistency across an entire department. We use serial commas on CPRBlog, for example, and we’re holding out against using “the U.S.” instead of “the United States,” except as a modifier! But as usual, the Trump administration is going to extremes, with the plain goal of denying or obscuring reality.
It’s hard not to think of George Orwell when you read these kinds of stories. In 1984, he wrote about Big Brother’s efforts to shrink the language as a way to diminish the range of possible thought. Oldspeak, with all its complex thoughts, and disturbingly descriptive words, was a danger to the ruling class. Newspeak was lean and limited, perfect for a government intent on rewriting history at will and suppressing "subversive" ideas before they could even be formed in a single mind.
1984 returned to the bestseller list earlier this year, and not for nothing. The president’s hostile relationship with facts, his coterie of liars on the public payroll, his insistence that CNN is making up news rather than reporting it – these are all stepping stones toward Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian future. We’re all so accustomed to the rat-a-tat-tat of the political back and forth that it’s easy not to notice when lines are crossed, even by a president famous for crossing lines.
But let’s take note of this one. This week, the President of the United States tried to shrink our vocabulary by banning the government’s use of seven words that he thinks lead to ideas that inconvenience him.
We may not be in Room 101 yet, but some days it feels like it’s just down the hall.