The Evolution of Our Orwellian Language

This is strictly a rhetoric post. Two paragraphs from the New York Times, an article about ISIS:

Mr. Baghdadi’s ambitions don’t end in Mosul. ISIS has proclaimed nothing less than the re-establishment of the caliphate, that venerable institution of Islamic rule that was abolished in 1924, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. And while he’s been elusive on camera, Mr. Baghdadi betrays a great deal of himself in the recorded speech.

Mr. Baghdadi is introduced in the recording as “our master, commander of the faithful, Abu Bakr al-Husayni al-Qureishi al-Baghdadi.” The phraseology is at once formulaic (“commander of the faithful” was the conventional title of address for a caliph) and cynical. The nom de guerre “Abu Bakr” recycles the name of Muhammad’s father-in-law and Islam’s first caliph, chosen by contemporaries over the objection of those who favored Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali — the Shiites. Meanwhile, Mr. Baghdadi’s alleged descent from the Qureish tribe fulfills one of the qualifications for the office held crucial by pre-modern Muslim scholars, who required that caliphs share Muhammad’s kinship. Baghdad, of course, was the principal seat of the caliphate from the eighth through the 13th centuries, when it was conquered by the Mongols.

What strange choices of wording for those two events. The Ottoman Empire didn’t collapse so much as it was divvied up between victorious colonial empires. Modern Turkey is actually larger than the amount of territory that the Empire was supposed to keep.

The Ottoman Empire was supposed to keep the yellow part. Not pictured: the rest of the Middle East.

Likewise, Baghdad wasn’t so much conquered as exterminated, turning it from one of the world’s cultural capitals into a ruin.

What strange word choices! It makes me wonder if our current, anodyne ways of describing violence will in the future gain more sinister connotations. In his famous essay, George Orwell discusses at length the gussying up language so that the murder of an entire village takes on the tenor of a routine visit to the doctor.

But language evolves, and so isn’t it possible that our descendants, or perhaps even children today, will grow up to associate neutral-sounding descriptions of violence with their more horrific underpinnings. I am thinking here of the evolution of concentration camps, a phrase originally conceived of by the British as a euphemism for rounding up civilians like cattle and putting them in prison.

Now we have detention centers, and enhanced interrogation is already well down this road.

Or decimation which, as any internet pedant will tell you, originated as a latin term for an administrative punishment that involved killing 10% of a military unit. Now its a synonym for total destruction.

Maybe a precision airstrike will mean indiscriminate killing in 500-years-from-now English.

I propose the NSA calls its next major spying project Honest Abe.

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About deconstructionapplied

Writer, freelance editor. Former Occupier.
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