The NCTE Doublespeak Award


I first heard of the Doublespeak Award in an applied linguistics class at UNI. The award, developed by the NCTE Public Language Committee in 1974, is “an ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.”

Its first recipient was Colonel David H. E. Opfer, USAF Press Officer in Cambodia. According to the NCTE library files, “After a U.S. bombing raid, [Opfer] told some reporters: ‘You always write it’s bombing, bombing, bombing. It’s not bombing! It’s air support!’”

Subsequent “winners” include individuals, such as Joni Ernst (“Keystone Jobs Bill”), Kellyanne Conway (“Alternative Facts”), Rush Limbaugh (for “distorting the truth on nearly 1,000 media outlets nationwide”); as well as institutions: the New York State Regents, the tobacco industry, and the Department of Defense.

In 2008, the award was bestowed not on an individual or group, but rather on a phrase: “aspirational goal.” The phrase was used in policy descriptions in lieu of firm deadlines for withdrawal from the Iraq War and reducing carbon emissions. According to the NCTE record, “‘Aspirational goal’ is both a tautology and a paradox. Aspirations and goals are the same thing; and yet when the terms are combined, the effect is to undermine them both, producing a phrase that means, in effect, ‘a goal to which one does not aspire all that much.’”

The phrase works well to describe my half-hearted “aspirational goal” to get to school before 7:30 a.m., but when paired with troop withdrawal and global warming, the words’ intentional doublespeak is pernicious.

As an English and journalism teacher, my ears perk up at intentional misuse of language to obscure rather than to clarify, to hide meaning rather than to illuminate it, to sow confusion and distrust. That is, using language in direct opposition to its nobel purpose to communicate clear and accurate information, ideas, and emotions.

As reflected in the surge in sales of George Orwell’s “1984,” many are concerned about this current twilight zone, where our daily discussions are peppered with divisive and obfuscating phrases: “fake news,” “bad hombres,” “anchor baby,” to name a few.

Is this how we now present reality? Is this how we now talk to each other? I thought ad hominem was the lowest form of propaganda, to be avoided in civilized discourse and dismissed by thinking people over the age of 8. Yet the post-truth appeal to our lowest emotional response has become so commonplace, there is a temptation to give up rather than sort out truth from untruth. One of my administrators recently asked me, as a journalism teacher, how to distinguish reliable news from “fake news.” This is a community leader who was sincerely asking for guidance. I appreciated his effort to educate himself, but his question revealed the depth of news consumers’ confusion. (I’ll share my answer to him in a future post.)

I urge teachers to watch for distortions of language by the media, in policy wording, and in the public sphere, and to call it out. Our challenge is to uphold clarity and honesty in language as requisite to democracy.

Helping students recognize and reject manipulative use of language can start with a visit to this excellent website, created in collaborations with the United States Holocaust Museum: Mind Over Media: Analyzing Contemporary Propaganda. Perusal of the past Doublespeak Awards  will increase students’ attention to language misuse as well.

The 2018 Doublespeak Award (“glaring example of deceptive language by a public spokesperson”) will be selected from nominations appearing in public, in print, or in video, between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018. Start collecting your nominations now.

The call for nominations is between June 30 and Sept. 15, 2018.

Allison Berryhill teaches English and Journalism at Atlantic High School. She is chair of the NCTE Public Language Award Committee in addition to serving on the ICTE and IHSPA boards.