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How Words Get Mugged

Last updated on October 12, 2020

“In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the fictional language Newspeak attempts to eliminate personal thought by restricting the expressiveness of the English language.”—Wikipedia

[Editor’s note: A good portion of this brief article appeared in the original Matrix Gazette some years ago, yet the perversion of language accelerates daily especially now as the Presidential Election lurks around the corner.]

It’s not fiction anymore. There’s a pernicious trend afoot. Words that once meant one thing, are now perverted to mean something else. Let’s take for example, the word “thug.”

We start with a standard definition, compliments of “Thug: a cruel or vicious ruffian, robber, or murderer.” In other words, a real bad guy, a criminal, and someone who physically violates the rights of others.

A few years ago, a professional football player decided to conduct a ranting diatribe on national TV after a particularly hard-fought game. He also happened to be an African American, or as many like to say, “a man of color.”

Apparently, his diatribe was so over the top that some commentators called him a thug. Many agreed that he had acted like a “thug,” but truth be told, he was simply a pro-football player mouthing off in an offensive manner.

That should have been the end of the story. He wasn’t the first nor the last athlete, black or white, to shout and scream verbal venom.

But it wasn’t the end. Soon the media gods of racial sensitivity stepped into the fray. According to them, “thug” was really a “white code word” for the “N-word.” These protectors of racial consciousness posited that since white folks couldn’t use the N-word in public anymore, they had substituted “thug” to mean the same thing.

So, with the stroke of their public pronouncements, a perfectly valid and useful word has been blacklisted (no pun intended). This has future implications.

If a white person commits a vicious crime, it’s still OK to call him a thug. But, from now on, if a person of color commits a vicious crime, it will no longer be acceptable to call him a thug. In fact, according to the word police, it will be racist.

So goes the perversion of language in the once land of the free. The English language is getting mugged.

George Orwell saw this and other trends during his time and wrote an essay on the perversion of language, “Politics and the English Language” (1946).

In it he “criticized and ended the ‘ugly and inaccurate’ written English of his time and examines the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language.”

“The essay focuses on political language, which, according to Orwell, ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. Orwell believed that the language used was necessarily vague or meaningless because it was intended to hide the truth rather than express it. This unclear prose was a ‘contagion’ which had spread to those who did not intend to hide the truth, and it concealed a writer’s thoughts from himself and others. Orwell encourages concreteness and clarity instead of vagueness, and individuality over political conformity.” —Wikipedia

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