Politics and the Canadian Language

What would Orwell say about our curious brand of Newspeak?

By Crawford Kilian 31 Oct 2013 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

image atom
In today's Canadian Newspeak, 'accountability' evidently means Mike Duffy is to blame for everything that's gone wrong since the election of 2006.

The Senate expenses scandal, as the CBC now calls it, continues to grow, while the language used to describe it continues to shrink: we have fewer words to describe the scandal and those involved, and many of them are clichés like "bombshell" and "house of cards."

Without an extensive and nuanced vocabulary, our media provide a narrow and simplistic picture of events. Our own ability to think about those events is similarly narrowed.

It reminds me of a summer-stock theatre production of Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables that I was in long ago, in which we actors in a hotel dining-room scene appeared to be enjoying a sumptuous meal. We were actually chowing down on sliced bananas and apple sauce. All of us. Every damn night of the run.

The debasement of political language is nothing new. George Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" described the decline of British political discourse in the 1930s and '40s.

But Orwell's thoughts are still current: English, he said, "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

"Orthodoxy, of whatever colour," he added, "seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style" -- a lesson taken to heart by compilers of Conservative talking points, as well as his note that "in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible."

Canadians can make a modest claim to carrying on that debasement -- taking the worst outrages from other English-speaking nations and adding distinctive adulterants of maple syrup, Timbits, and bitumen to the once-eloquent political English of Tom Paine, Edmund Burke, and John Locke.

Let's first consider the concept-swapping in language that literally changes the way we think about issues. As Susan Delacourt pointed out in her recent book Shopping for Votes, political parties aren't parties any more; they're brands, like Nike and Honda. The trick is to make your party look like Apple -- the choice of discriminating consumers -- and the opposition like BlackBerry, a sorry mob of has-beens.

Similarly, citizens and voters are now taxpayers, as if Picasso were a purchaser of canvas and Louis Armstrong a purchaser of musical instruments.

Our Newspeak

It's not what you spend, but what you get for your money that really matters. Imagine Stephen Harper's Conservatives in power in Sept. 1939: "The taxpayers won't put up with the awful deficits we'd incur in fighting the Nazis, so we'll sit this one out. But we'll proudly spend a fortune on the bicentennial of the War of 1812."

The country was built on the concept of responsible government, meaning the government deserves the glory of its achievements and takes lumps for its failures. This has transformed into accountability, which evidently means Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy are to blame for everything that's gone wrong since the election of 2006.

"Protection" and "security" have also seen a transformation in their meanings: "Protection" means safety from Stockwell Day's unreported crimes by unreported criminals (not to mention child pornographers).

"Security" no longer means protection against unemployment. It means protecting Canadian mining companies against the evil Brazilians.

Of course we're all annoyed by the tedious paperwork of being proprietors of a prosperous democracy, so we cheer at the thought of smaller government and lower taxes -- that is, a government that will let you buy hamburger full of E. coli or worse, and that will miraculously provide you with free lunch (also breakfast, dinner, and the Brooklyn Bridge).

In addition to these um, game-changer terms, consider what else passes for English on Canadian political news. Politicians have transformed the throat-clearing of 20th-century liars into something resembling words: "Let me be clear." "Look, again..." "The reality is..." "The fact of the matter is..." "The prime minister was very clear..." "Again, the prime minister was very clear..." "Frankly, to be honest..."

When you hear such expressions, they should alert you that what follows will be neither clear, nor real, nor factual. It will be a lie, delivered by a politician whose salary and expenses you pay.

Euphemism, a nice word for a nasty idea, is a major influence in Canadian political English. Political news and TV programs have drawn on mendacity from other countries and added Canadian content. "Misspoke" for "spoke the truth" or "got caught in a lie" is an Americanism. When a Canadian cabinet minister has "ethical issues," he "steps down" rather than committing a crime, getting caught, and quitting like a grownup. "Inappropriate" is a euphemism for "illegal act committed by one of our people." So is "accept the consequences," meaning "go quietly with a minimum of further embarrassment to the PM and the Conservative Party."

All politicians will corrupt the language every time they sit down at the keyboard or turn on their smartphones to tweet their breathless followers that some meeting of the faithful in Abbotsford or Peterborough was "great" -- just like Alexander and the First World War.

In 1984, George Orwell included a postscript on "Newspeak," Big Brother's language that could be used as mindlessly as the quacking of a duck. In fact, "doubleplusgood duckspeaker" describes MPs like Paul Calandra, Dean Del Mastro, and Kellie Leitch with breathtaking accuracy.

But the postscript also implies that at some point after Winston Smith went to take a bullet in his neck, Big Brother was overthrown and rational language returned to political discourse. Newspeak then became a subject for scholarly discussion, like the Mongol invasions or the Black Death. Let us hope that Canadian Newspeak will also become a historical item -- and very soon.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox


The Barometer

What do you think will happen in 2019?

Take this week's poll