William Lutz – Double Speak

“Double-speak” refers to language that is intentionally ambiguous, misleading, or deceptive. It’s often used to obscure the truth or manipulate perceptions by presenting information in a way that appears to communicate while actually concealing or distorting meaning.

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DECEMBER 20, 1989



William Lutz, professor of English at Rutgers University, talked about his book Double-Speak: The Use of Language to Deceive You. A unique analysis of American English, examples of double-speak are “human kinetics” in place of “physical education,” and “pavement deficiencies” instead of “potholes.” Double-speak is consciously used to manipulate. Lutz pointed out that his mission is not to eradicate double-speak, but to eliminate double-speak from the discourse of important issues where it is most dangerous. He stated that double-speak is most prevalent in government, followed closely by the advertising industry.


Brian Lamb: William Lutz, what is double-speak?

William Lutz: Double-speak is language designed to evade responsibility, make the unpleasant appear pleasant, the unattractive appear attractive. Basically, it’s language that pretends to communicate, but really doesn’t. It is language designed to mislead, while pretending not to.

Brian Lamb: Is it done consciously?

William Lutz: Oh, yes! Very consciously. Doublespeak is not a slip of the tongue or a mistaken use of language, it’s exactly the opposite. It is language used by people who are very intelligent and very sophisticated in the use of language, and know that you can do an awful lot with language.

Brian Lamb: Who is the worst offender?

William Lutz: In sheer bulk?

Brian Lamb: Yes.

William Lutz: Sheer numbers of examples? The government, if we count government from the local level all the way up to the federal level. I had to stop writing the chapter on government double-speak. It was going to take over the whole book. But interestingly enough, and this was a revelation in doing the book, about a half a step behind, comes business, with a tremendous amount of double-speak.

Brian Lamb: How long has the government been using doublespeak?

William Lutz: Um, I think of government as the third oldest profession, and probably from the moment government was instituted, double-speak came with it. I cite examples from the 5th century BC in Greece, um, Julius Caesar, when he pacified Gaul(?). Of course Nazi Germany thrived on double-speak, so its been around for quite a while.

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  1. Loss of Trust: When people realize they’ve been subjected to double-speak, it erodes trust in the speaker or institution using it. If individuals feel they’re being manipulated or deceived, they’re less likely to believe anything that’s said in the future.

  2. Misunderstanding and Confusion: Double-speak can lead to misunderstandings and confusion, as it obscures the true meaning of statements. This can result in people making decisions based on false or incomplete information, which can have serious consequences.

  3. Manipulation of Perception: By using double-speak, individuals or organizations can manipulate public perception and shape opinions to align with their own agenda. This can distort reality and prevent people from forming well-informed opinions.

  4. Undermining Accountability: Double-speak can be used to evade responsibility or accountability by framing issues in a way that shifts blame or obscures the true nature of a situation. This makes it difficult to hold individuals or organizations accountable for their actions.

  5. Social and Political Consequences: In the realm of politics and social discourse, double-speak can be particularly dangerous. It can be used by politicians and leaders to justify controversial policies, conceal their true intentions, or rally support for unpopular actions.

  6. Stifling Dialogue and Debate: When language is used deceptively, it can stifle meaningful dialogue and debate. Instead of engaging in open and honest discussions, people may resort to using double-speak to manipulate or undermine opposing viewpoints.

Overall, the use of double-speak undermines the principles of transparency, honesty, and open communication. It can have far-reaching consequences, affecting everything from interpersonal relationships to public policy decisions. By being aware of the dangers of double-speak, individuals can work to recognize and counteract its effects, promoting clearer and more honest communication.

Further Study

The Natural Enemy of Any Subject