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.

Brian Lamb: When did you first get interested in this?

William Lutz: In 1978 I became the, head of the committee on public doublespeak and in 1980 I started editing the Quarterly Review of doublespeak, and that’s when I became very interested in it, simply because I, as editing, I have all the examples of doublespeak sent to me, and so I wade through them all.

Brian Lamb: What got you interested in it?

William Lutz: My interest in rhetoric, — I did in my Ph.D., I did work in rhetoric and I was interested in rhetoric, and in 1977 I published a textbook called “The Age of Communication”, which was a little different at the time. I tried to examine the rhetoric of television, radio, the mass media, advertising, taking a established classical rhetoric and apply it to modern media. I had a lot of fun doing that and as a result of that textbook, I was asked to join the committee and I saw rhetoric and language coming all together in doublespeak in an interesting way.

Brian Lamb: Universities also have a problem with double speak, don’t they?

William Lutz: Oh yes, I continually bite the hand that feeds when I cite Rutgers, and I, at least every issue, I have an example from Rutgers University. One of my favorite, we don’t have a “Physical Education” department at Rutgers, we have a department of “Human Kinetics”.

Brian Lamb: Why?

William Lutz: Well, I also point out in my book that people in physical education, have come up with all of these different terms, because they’ve gone professional. They now have their own journals, so they have their own academic jargon, and as the dean at Minnesota who wanted to change the name of his “Physical Education” school said, “We’re not taken seriously unless we have a name like this.” “We can’t get the grants, we can’t publish the articles.”

Brian Lamb: How long have you been at Rutgers?

William Lutz: Since 1971.

Brian Lamb: What do you teach?

William Lutz: I teach a variety of courses in the English department, but I teach rhetoric, linguistics and some Victorian literature, and I also teach a survey course that’s required of all students. We start with the Illiad(?) and the Odyssey and work our way up.

Brian Lamb: Is there any example in history, I mean ancient history, and literature of doublespeak?

William Lutz: Yes, I, one I cite just as a passing example is Thucydides in the 5th century BC, in the Pelleponesian war. During the war there was a very vicious civil war in Athens at that time, and Thucydidies points out that at that time, the very language itself became corrupted to their own ends, acts of cowardice became acts of great bravery, traitorous deeds towards friends became patriotic acts, and he cites the whole list. And its interesting that Thucydidies cites this corruption of language as the ultimate in horror that occurred during that civil war.

Brian Lamb: Do you ever personally find yourself using double-speak?

William Lutz: Oh yeah. When I was, head of the department, I had to engage in double-speak. You have to write recommendations, you have to write personnel evaluation forms. I had to pitch for more money, and so you use the double-speak of bureaucracy, as anyone else. If I were a bureaucrat who, who would function within the bureaucracy using straight language, I wouldn’t be taken seriously. It, its a sort of ritualistic use of language.

Brian Lamb: Are you in this whole world of double-speak because you want to get rid of it ?

William Lutz: Oh yes. I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of it, I don’t think we can. It is inherent in the function of language, to, to use language, to, as a weapon or as a tool, to manipulate other people, however, I think there are two things we can do. First of all, we can all become much more aware of this language. We should be aware of it, so that we can at least be defensive, and, and defend ourselves so that we’re not misled through it. But secondly, there are times when we simply cannot tolerate this language. When we talk about important public issues of national policy, we should not use double-speak, as a nation. We should not use it ourselves. We should not allow the politicians, who are speaking to us, to use it. Language that way can be terribly corrupting in a society and can mislead all of us, and in a democracy that depends upon the active participation of its citizens, it can lead to cynicism and resentment and a withdrawal from the political process.

Brian Lamb: Is that, does that have anything to do with the reason why the, only 50% of the American people voted in 1988?

William Lutz: I have a, a hypothesis that I would love to test, and, and I hope sometime to be able to do that. I would love to, to be able to track the pervasiveness of double-speak, as it grew, along with the decline in voting, because the reaction I get to “Doublespeak”, from a lot of, of readers of the Quarterly Review, is they write to as, “Well of course I know this language, I see it all over the place, I see it all the time, but, you know, what, what else can you expect from politicians, they all lie, they all use double-speak”. It is that cynicism which leads to, “There’s nothing I can do about it.” So people withdraw and pull back.

Brian Lamb: This book is in the book stores?

William Lutz: Yes it is.

Brian Lamb: And its $17.95?

William Lutz: Yes.

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