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The Power of Words

Posted on December 18, 2017

Many years ago, a high school English teacher I had in Argentina assigned a set of essays by George Orwell. I remember the teacher well, he was tall and thin with thick-rimmed glasses and a shock of dark hair. For some reason, he and his wife (also a teacher) had traveled from England for a year to teach at St Andrew’s Scots School in Buenos Aires, where I was, by a set of fortuitous circumstances, a student.

The book had a blue cover with big white letters and to me the essays were nothing short of thrilling. I remember two in particular. One was entitled “Shooting an Elephant,” it was a moving and unsettling account of colonialism in all its horror and perversity. But perhaps the one that impacted me the most and the one that I remember most often to this day was titled “Politics and the English Language.”

In “Politics and the English Language,” written way back in 1946, Orwell discusses how language can be used both to clarify but also to obscure meaning. Many of the ideas in this essay were later reflected in the “Newspeak” language of Orwell’s much better known writing: the novel 1984. In “Politics and the English Language” Orwell uses examples to argue for “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.” When I read it as a teenager so many years ago, it felt like an incredible discovery, like a curtain had been opened, revealing to me the incredible power of words. The essay’s commitment to transparency, clarity, and even purity and precision in expression is something that still resonates with me.

As Orwell articulated so beautifully, words can be used to speak truth in the face of confusion and obfuscation. This is why (remarkably if one thinks about it) writers, even fiction writers and poets, have often been censored or persecuted under totalitarian regimes to restrain “the power of the pen.”  But words can also be used to hide meaning, and to “normalize” or render acceptable things that would normally be shocking and unacceptable. This is the terrible power of euphemism and vagueness.

But it is not only about political writing or literature. Precision, precise description to be exact, is a hallmark of science. It is in essence what characterizes both the quantitative and the qualitative sciences. It is crucial to both quantitative analyses and historical and ethnographic studies. And it relies on using exactly the right words, on saying exactly what we mean. Precision, focus, clarity is the hallmark of good scientific writing, and I would argue, of good communication more generally. Clarifying points of view, through precise language, is the first step to resolving disagreements, and can sometimes itself suffice, as many disagreements are based at least in part on misunderstandings.

Reading the news this past week about the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention being required or encouraged (at the time I am writing it is not yet clear) to avoid using terms such as “evidence-based”, “diversity”, “transgender,” or “fetus” in certain documents reminded me of Orwell and his essay “Politics and the English Language.” Certainly the specific terms—a list that includes “vulnerable” and “science-based”—that were singled out are very troubling, related as they are to what are perhaps the two most important core values of public health: science and the promotion of health for all. But even more fundamental is the attempt to manipulate meaning and obfuscate truth (whatever the ultimate purpose) through prescriptions on recommended  (or required) language. In his essay Orwell also argued that “… thought corrupts language but language can also corrupt thought.” So it is not only about the words we use, but also about the thoughts those words allow us (or do not allow us) to think.

As we prepare for the new year, let’s renew and express our commitment to the values and the mission that bring us together as a University and as a School of Public Health: the search for truth, communicating about truth in ways that are clear and meaningful, and the promotion of fairness and health for all. And lets continue to use language in ways that illuminate and make clear our meaning and our values. 

Have a refreshing and restful holiday.

Read the letter from Laura Magaña, PhD, CEO of the Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health demanding the withdrawal of the censorship order on the language used at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: