Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

How to manipulate the masses by language alone

George Orwell with novel 1984 popularized the idea that by changing the language, you could change the minds. It is easy to forget that we are routinely victims of this strategy.

A fascinating example is the French language itself. I long had this image of the French revolution as the French people, that is, the people who spoke French, rising up. But during the revolution in 1789, only half the population of France spoke some French. The state of France created the French language we know today. It was an act of social engineering to ensure that there would be a united French people.

A widespread instance of this strategy is political correctness. Apparently, it is racist to say that Martin Luther King was black. We don’t have firemen anymore, have you noticed? We have firefighters.

The term climate change is another fascinating example. Prior to 2003, we talked about global warming. It changed when Frank Luntz, a political consultant, convinced the American president to force people to talk about changes instead of warming, because it feels less threatening.

Another example is “intellectual property”. If “intellectual property” is bona fide property, then you should be able to steal it. Can you? The Supreme Court of the United States thinks you can’t steal intellectual property the same way you can steal cars:

(…) interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud. The infringer of a copyright does not assume physical control over the copyright nor wholly deprive its owner of its use.

Yet even judges get confused. Recently a programmer from Goldman Sachs who copied and shared secret software was acquitted of theft charges. Yet, in its verdict, the court writes that he stole purely intangible property embodied in a purely intangible format. He cannot be convicted of theft, so why use the word in the first place? The intellectual property lobby goes even further when it talks about piracy. (Thankfully, they haven’t yet prosecuted someone for actual piracy.) Effectively, they have changed the language, they have gotten us to attribute new meaning to existing words, to associate piracy and theft to the infringement of exclusivity rights. Scientists often play the same games. For example, to make something sound serious, just append engineering to it: knowledge engineering, software engineering, data engineering. Experience has taught me to be suspicious of people who spends too much effort redefining words. They are probably not out to help you think clearly.

Credit: Thanks to Marc Couture for the legal reference and an inspiring discussion.

Related video: Too Much Copyright Further information: Euphemistic Language by George Carlin, Words That Work by Frank I. Luntz, How Not To Say What You Mean by R. W. Holder

Update: I do realize that global warming and climate change refer to different concepts from a scientific point of view. But what people worry about is not so much the change, as change is unavoidable. Rather, we worry about the warming… don’t we? Or are some people really set on preventing any kind of climate change?