'THE GAME OF WORDS': episode III, semantics

Ezra Santos - Managing Director


“Your attention please”


In George Orwell’s novel “1984”, we are introduced to a fictional language called “Newspeak”. In the novel, Newspeak was engineered by a totalitarian state (Oceania) to remove even the possibility of rebellious thoughts (thought and behavior control).

Newspeak contains no negative terms. For example, the only way to express the meaning of “bad” is through the word “ungood.” Something extremely bad is called “doubleplus ungood.”

Here’s my favourite song from the soundtrack (deeply meaningful and oh so catchy) of the movie adaptation of 1984. 


Newspeak in the real world

Newspeak is fictional, but I believe that we face a real form of Newspeak today (we have for a long time, decades in fact). If you do a Google search of “negative language” and “positive language” you will find an almost universal consensus: negative language is bad. Or in today’s newspeak, the use of positive language is more constructive than the alternative.

I differ with the consensus. Not only is negative language at times more powerful, it is also, at times, absolutely necessary – If I have to yell “NO!” to save someone’s life, I’m going to yell no. And someone is going to have to work really hard to convince me that WARNING labels on medicine, poisons, corrosive substances and heavy machinery aren’t a good idea.

I’m not blind to the fact that words have the power to influence thinking and behavior. That negativity breeds negativity. But I’m drawing a very important distinction between negative words and negativity. There are times when negative language really is the right and best thing.

Food for thought: Don’t confuse negative words or language with being negative


Communication is king

We’ve all heard the saying “cash flow is king” (or, at least, I hope we all have). Well I’d like to present that communication is king in both spoken and written language. If your choice of words blocks, obscures or messes up communication then you should rethink what you are saying or writing. More often than not, when positive, constructive, inclusive language (read: thought and behavior control – whether used for good or evil) are king, we end up with something that people either don’t believe, don’t understand, or have to reread in order to ‘get it.’

Yes, we want to be positive. Yes, we want to be constructive. Yes, we want to be inclusive. But these wants are not king. Communication is king: your subject matter must reach the recipient (audience) with as little to no interference (clarity) as possible, in order to achieve the communication objective (which will either be an emotional response or understanding).

Think of it like this: clean, clear water is king – it’s both refreshing and essential (see what I did there?). Mountain water, spring water, mineral water, filtered water, Fiji water, are wants – and they’re all okay, as long as the water is clean.

Food for thought: We don’t need Newspeak, we need Clearspeak