George Orwell’s legacy includes dozens of memorable phrases. They include “Big Brother is watching you,” “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” and “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever,” all of which are more chilling for seeming all too probable. But if anything, he is even better known for the words he coined, like “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime.” However, one Orwellian coining that I’ve always wished had become a part of English is “duckspeak.”
According to Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “duckspeak” means superficially different things depending to whom it is applied. When used of a speaker who follows the current orthodoxy, it is a word of approval. However, when applied to an enemy, it’s an insult;.
In its vividness, the word reminds me of some the great invective of the eighteenth century, including “toady,” “bootlicker” and “lickspittle.” And now I think, the eighteenth century developed a near-synonym for duckspeak, too – “cant.”
Both cant and duckspeak refer to a bland and unthinking expression of conventional ideas, often with enthusiasm and stubbornness. The difference is that cant was usually applied to statements that the speaker disagreed with. Duckspeak retains that application, but becomes a compliment when you agree with the statement, because speaking in cliches implies an unthinking loyalty. The implication is that a person who is a duckspeaker is unlikely to be disloyal, because they have no original thoughts.
Essentially, duckspeakers are those who break every rule for clear expression that George Orwell summarized in “Politics and the English Language.” They don’t use short, effective words; they use long, vague ones that obscure their meaning. They frown on original thought, and prefer instead to string cliches together into an approximation of meaning.
Rather than communication, their goals are inter-personal. They may hope that a flow of empty phrases will silence the opposition and impress bystanders into a silent admiration of their eloquence. However, their main purpose – quite unconsciously – is to show themselves orthodox followers of whatever line of thinking they happen to support.
The idea that speech or writing might be used to get things done is foreign to their actions, although when you point out the fact, they are likely to stare at you and wonder why you are stating the obvious – thereby proving that they are also engaged in what Orwell termed “doublethink,” the holding of two completely contradictory ideas at the same time.
Examples of duckspeak are everywhere. You might say that it is the dialect of modern industrial culture. But what got me thinking about duckspeak was the incident at PyCon that people call Donglegate. Hearing two men behind her joking about big dongles, Adria Richards posted a picture of them on Twitter to shame them, and complained to the conference organizers, who reprimanded the men. Richards later blogged about the incident with what can only be called a triumphant tone, suggesting she had struck a blow for women in technology. Soon after, others started giving their opinion of what happened. Richards and one of the jokers lost their jobs, and anti-feminists sent her death and rape threats.
Anybody with a claim to impartiality might have seen these events as evidence that feminism has come to high-tech, and that exactly how it will fit into that sub-culture needs to be discussed. However, with few exceptions, people on both sides could only respond with duckspeak.
The anti-feminists attacked Richards for the joker’s loss of his job, while openly rejoicing when she lost hers. They labeled her a stereotypical feminist – dictatorial, humorless, and erratic – and suggested that she deserved what happened to her. Rather than trying to analyze the memes that might have caused Donglegate, they used it as an excuse for the same old invective, ignoring the fact that many things need to change.
But to my dismay, the feminists – the women and men I support – responded as badly.. They excused Richards’ actions on the grounds that talking to the jokers one-on- one might be difficult for a woman, ignoring the fact Richards is articulate and capable. They petitioned for Richards’ employer to rehire her, while showing little sympathy for the fired joker, suggesting that he deserved what happened to him. They painted her as the victim of racism and misogyny (which she was), but made little mention of her arrogance and carelessness.
In other words, all nuance was lost in the discussion, and with it any hope for serious discussion. Both sides were too busy proving their orthodoxy to manage anything constructive.
Aside from a possible emotional catharsis, all that came out of the affair was the tendency of some anti-feminists to quote their opponents in squeaky voices. To a reader of Orwell like me, they seemed to have independently re-invented duckspeak in the most literal sense. But of course, what they never noticed is their verbal manifestos could have been lampooned in exactly the same. way.
Most people didn’t even get that much from the affair. We are all so used to public discussion degenerating in this way that most of us forget that it could be conducted in any other way.
That’s probably why duckspeak, like cant before it, has become obsolete. You don’t need a word for the norm. It’s just how people behave.
Still, watching episodes like Donglegate unfold, I conclude that a revival at least of duckspeak, with its ambiguous meanings, would be a useful way to improve public thought. Watching the anti-feminists and feminists demonstrate their separate orthodoxies, I couldn’t help thinking of the end of Animal Farm, in which humans and pigs are mingling, and the watching animals are having an increasingly hard time telling the two apart.
That’s where duckspeak leads. And if, by any chance I’m guilty of it here, then all I can say is – quack to you, too.