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OnWords: Kowtowing To The Language Of Power

When Wichita State University’s Education Department recently changed its name to the College of Applied Studies, it may have aligned them with university goals, but it was a blow to plain language.

George Orwell warned us 70 years ago of such doublespeak. At the time, Orwell was writing about tyrannical governments, but if there is anything the intervening years have revealed, it’s that damage to plain language can be practiced by any totalizing system, whether it’s the state or an economic system or even a well-meaning social movement.

People adopt the language the powerful are using because there are ramifications if they don’t. These range from direct punishments and sanctions to social ostracism or lack of opportunity.

Thus education becomes “applied learning,” getting fired becomes “the right to work,” and bullying becomes “the art of the deal.”

The pressure to shift our language to that of those in power need not be direct. It can seem like keeping up with a trend, like jargon about disruption or inadvertently putting the word “burden” in after the word “tax.”

After a while, we accept this language as true, forgetting that part of the process of education has always included the process of applying what we have learned, or that taxes are also used to ease burdens we all may face.

Whatever its source, adopting the language of power contorts our thinking, and using plain language becomes act of subversion.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.