Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Words?

Censorship bubble
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It appears that the Trump Administration is a little fearful of a handful of words. In a bombshell report, the Washington Post stated that the CDC, under the auspices of its new Trump-appointed leadership, sought to ban seven words and expressions from official reports and documentation. Meanwhile, back at the CDC ranch, director Brenda Fitzgerald pushed back, denying that there are any “banned, prohibited or forbidden words at the CDC — period.” She didn’t, however, actually deny that in effect, staff had been asked to steer clear of certain words. So what are we to make of this emerging linguistic quacks-like-censorship direction?

Unlike hate language, taboo words, dirty words, or fighting words that may cause harm, offense, or incite violence, the dangerous seven are not only surprisingly innocuous, but one might even say necessary to describe the present concerns of modern life and science. Astonishingly, “science-based” and “evidence-based” are on the list of the so-called banned words, along with “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.” The Post reports further that in some instances, semantically manipulative mouthfuls were offered, such as “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” in place of the widely accepted “science-based” or “evidence-based.” For the rest of the words to be avoided, such as “fetus,” there are no other suggested alternatives.

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a peripatetic linguist who speaks Australian English and studies dead languages. Every month, she’ll uncover curious stories about language from around the globe for Lingua Obscura.

Other Department of Health and Human services agencies received guidance for additional verboten words, including “entitlement,” “diversity,” and “vulnerable.” Moreover, these agencies were encouraged to use “Obamacare” in place of the official “the Affordable Care Act” and “exchanges” instead of “marketplaces.”

It appears this euphemistic meddling is not just a trend in the HHS. NPR reports a drop in the number of grants awarded by the National Science Foundation containing the phrase “climate change” in the title or summary, as many organizations are forced to self-censor in order to not offend official state sensibilities in the present political climate.

The public has been justifiably outraged at this Orwellian and rather totalitarian turn of affairs. In turn, the CDC claims that the news is a “complete mischaracterization” of what’s going on. Case closed, nothing to see here…or no? So what should we make of this linguistic bait and switch and the furious denials of censorship in a volatile ideological atmosphere…that effectively results in censorship, whether self-inflicted or directed from the top? Should we care about the politicization of this quietly ever-growing list of seven little inoffensive words that seem to be becoming taboo?

Words are available for use by everyone, but in some discourses, some words can seem to take on an ideological tinge that certain sides may balk at, and seek to find euphemisms for, even if the concepts they represent need to be referred to.

Trumpism has caused the highly charged and changed political state in which linguistic censorship is starting to rear its hydra head.

Some interpret this as a sign of the Trump Administration’s ostrich-like fear of certain ideas and social trends themselves. But treating the act of banning harmless words as simply a childish reaction to ideas gives too little credit for the political and social influence bans and word avoidance can ultimately have. Whether the impetus stems from ignorance and fear of ideas or the deliberate manipulation of messaging, linguistic censorship should worry us. It’s the thin end of the linguistic wedge when we consider the similarities of beginning this kind of a not-a-ban to well-documented linguistic practices of past totalitarian states.

Censorship is not just brute force black blocks of redacted text nestled amongst the more harmless words we might be allowed to read. That kind of blatant censorship can paradoxically produce more sophisticated, skeptical readers, as it’s clear and marked that some information is missing. Resistance against this coercive censorship can highlight it even further.

But what happens when the censorship is furtive, flying under the radar as much as possible? When no one notices, or no one cares, it can be easier to manipulate the messaging as desired, even if the ideas themselves may not be banned. It just may make it harder to express them. Language censorship is not simply about the removal of ideas and concepts that are uncomfortable for a regime, but about using language to construct and frame a particular reality to persuade a populace.

When it comes to linguistic censorship in totalitarian societies, no detail is too small, and no words too innocent, in terms of framing and sending the right message. This kind of censorship has a social impact, even if it only affects official documentation, rather than being widely enforced.

In 1977, the Black Book of Polish Censorship was smuggled out of Poland by an employee of the central censorship agency. It described how censorship infiltrated every minute detail of Polish life, from politics to home affairs to social relations, entertainment, and agriculture, dealing with language that appeared on documents such as stationery, theatre tickets, and even confectionary wrapping. Any undesirable content or information was altered into something more palatable to the regime.

Similarly, Christian Todenhagen discusses how, astonishingly, Oxford University Press, in the 1980s, allowed Russian publishers of its student dictionary to redefine certain words to appear more favorable to Russian ideologies. “Capitalism,” for example, was changed from “The condition of possessing capital or using it for production: a system of society based on this: dominance of private capital” to “An economic and social system based on private ownership of the means of production operated for private profit, and on the exploitation of man by man.” For “socialism” the definition was changed to “A social and economic system which is replacing capitalism.” This subtle “semantic infiltration,” the bending and twisting of these linguistic definitions by states for their own ideological reasons, leaves the basic meanings intact—but it’s clear that their “truths” are very much constructed and politicized to influence and persuade. Not even dictionary definitions are immune to politics in this guerilla war over words.

Not having access to words we’re used to using can make it difficult, though not impossible, to describe certain concepts. Of course there are, as the CDC helpfully suggests, semantically loose alternatives for terms like “science-based” we might use instead, though granted always “in consideration with community standards and wishes.” In this kind of charged political environment, scientists are pressured to self-censor in order to be considered for funding, by using vague terms such as “global change,” “environmental change,” and “extreme weather” rather than the hot button “climate change” (itself a commonly used term that was politically manipulated by Republican interests to reduce the scary impact of “global warming”). Members of the press in more authoritarian states, such as China, may also regularly self-censor certain words and discourse to avoid any highly charged political headaches.

If the Trump administration is just hoping to avoid uncomfortable ideas by banning the words that we use for them, they might have to rethink things. The fact is those ideas still exist and can still be described in language, though readers may not always understand them the same way. Eventually new terms will rise up to replace them, just as “climate change” was favored over “global warming,” and after repetitive, widespread use, can develop the same kinds of nuances. The catch is it requires a particularly “woke” public, with access to trusted, alternative sources of information, not to mention a lot of mental energy, focus, and persistence to find other, easily digestible and agreed upon ways to express the same ideas. Not so easy in an environment where fake news is just lurking round the corner and censorship is not handily highlighted with black redacted text.

Words matter. These days, modern societies may wield power not through coercion, but through persuasion and manipulation, by using language to tell stories that can reinforce social biases, and gain the acceptance of certain groups they might wish to appeal to. Removing or modifying words we’re used to using for certain concepts can be an effective and sophisticated way to disrupt the debate and discussion of those concepts. The story of censorship then, is not about bare content, meaning, and facts, at least not any more, but how we view that content through the lens of our feelings and beliefs about it. It’s much more helpful to an authoritarian system to normalize that kind of information delivery, than to depend on factual content.

In “Totalitarian Language: Creating Symbols to Destroy Words,” Juan Francisco Fuentes suggests that one of the aims of totalitarianism is to destroy not just the ideas, values and institutions set up by rational eighteenth-century liberalism, but to destroy the very words describing those concepts, without replacing them with new language. Propaganda once based on rationalism, content, and facts, is thus replaced by propaganda that focuses on senses, symbols, images, and beliefs that can better sway a mass audience.

Even the most harmless of words matter in totalitarian states.

According to Fuentes, while words still have to be used in totalitarian language, it’s “not exactly as pieces of an articulate and rational discourse. They worked rather as “toxic sounds,” whether they be lyrics of songs, cries, or slogans, aimed at leaving the crowd in a state of emotional servitude.” Thus the rise of highly repeated catchphrases such as “Duce, Duce, Duce!”; “¡Franco, Franco, Franco!”; “Sieg Heil!”; “Heil Hitler!” George Mosse said that Hitler’s speeches were “logically constructed, but the inner logic was disguised by the rhythm and activity of the voice. The audience thus experienced the logic in the speeches emotionally; they felt only the militancy and the faith, without grasping the real content or reflecting on its meaning.”

So even the most harmless of words matter in totalitarian states. The Franco and Stalinist regimes tried to ban or modify many “suspicious expressions,” including the relatively harmless “fútbol” (football), of English origin, to “balompié” and “nozhnoi myach” respectively. Though the ideologies may have differed among the different states, the totalitarian process of linguistic censorship remains the same. Similarly, the Nazi regime tried to strike out many words it considered to be of Jewish liberal origin, for example, using the word “Menschlichkeit” instead of “Humanität” (humanity). In a totalitarian regime, it is not always about fear of ideas, but how those ideas are expressed and framed, with what words.

Do we imagine that Franco and Stalin sat at their desks, personally crossing off dangerous words like “fútbol” with a red pen? According to Fuentes, there’s plenty of evidence that like the general public, these dictators’ language use was full of these verboten expressions that were banned in an official setting by Francoism or Stalinism, thanks to the totalitarian environment born out of their leadership. Likewise, even if Trump did himself not decree a ban on specific words, he is not absolved of responsibility. Trumpism has caused the highly charged and changed political state in which linguistic censorship is starting to rear its hydra head.

So, it is perhaps not the act of linguistic censorship itself in the age of Trump that is the concern. Hate language, fighting words, dirty and offensive words are all somewhat regulated and self-censored by a society which agrees on the impact of those words. It’s the inordinate recasting of otherwise inoffensive, rationally expressive words as taboo words, such as “fetus,” “diversity,” “vulnerable,” and “science-based,” and replacing them with no new language. This is not reflective of how these words are used in society and shines a light on the Trump administration’s effective war on words.


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Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language. She has degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature, with a morbid focus on dead and dying languages. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

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