Nov 212010

In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

Politics and the English Language, 1946

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Nov 202010

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

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Nov 202010

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

Politics and the English Language

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Nov 192010

From Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language. Penn State Press, 1995. Translated by Jutta Mason and David Cayley.

Poerksen considers the following as examples of “plastic words”: basic need, care, center, communication, consumpion, contact, decision, development, education, energy, exchange, factor, function, future, growth, identity, information, living standard, management, model, modernization, partner, planning, problem, process, production, progress, project, raw material, relationship, resource, role, service, sexuality, solution, strategy, structure, substance, system, trend, value, welfare, work.

A. Origin and Usage

1. The speaker lacks the power of definition; the words do not acquire meaning or nuance from their contexts.

2. As “context-autonomous” words that do not depend on their connections, they superficially resemble the terms of science, but lack the precisely defined meanings of such terms, and their freedom from associations. The use of the same word inside and outside science leads to the assumption of kinship, and to the words becoming independent norms. In the vernacular, these nephews of science become stereotypes.

3. As a rule they originate in the vernacular, are adopted and reshaped by some brand of science, and then, like returning émigrés, rejoin the vernacular.

4. They have the character of metaphors inasmuch as they link the heterogeneous spheres of science and everyday life. They are distinct from metaphors in that they no longer evoke any image; they do not, like other comparisons, indicate their origin.

5. This makes their capacity to alter and illuminate their objects even more powerful. The less obvious their metaphorical character, the less it is noticed, and the more effectively it works. These words become commonsense, background concepts in our thinking.

B. Scope

6. The words surface in countless contexts. Their application is limited hardly at all by space or time.

7. They squeeze out and replace a wealth of synonyms. Synonyms after all are not words whose meaning is the same but whose meaning is similar, words with as many delicate differences and shadings as there are contexts. Before plastic words one knew which synonym belonged in which factual or social context. Now there is a “jack of all trades,” a word that serves the whole world.

8. They squeeze out and replace the verbum proprium, which precisely “fits” in a given context, with a nonspecific word.

9. They fill silences and replace indirect ways of speaking, exposing delicacy and tact to the action of stereotyped generalities.

C. Content

10. When we seek to grasp the meaning of the words, through their content rather than their sphere of influence, it comes down to a single characteristic. They manifest the logical law of the inverse proportionality of extension and intention: the broader the application, the smaller the content; the poorer the content, the larger the application. They are words that reduce a gigantic area to a common denominator. They put forward a universal claim, with a reduced and impoverished content.

11. In other words, the object spoken about, the referent, is not easy to grasp; the words are poor in substance, if not altogether without substance.

12. They seem to resemble the concepts of postclassical physics: purely imaginary, meaningless, self-referential, and functioning only as stackable poker chips. Is language being undermined in parallel with the use of these poker chips in the thought structures of mathematics and physics?

D. History as Nature

13. The words lack a historical dimension; they are embedded in no particular time or place. In that sense they are shallow; they are new and they don’t taste of anything.

14. They reinterpret history as nature and transform it into a laboratory.

15. They dispense with questions of good and evil and cause them to disappear.

E. Power of Connotation and Function

16. Connotation dominates, spreading out in expanding waves. In place of the power of denotation, they provide an experience of counterfeit enlightenment.

17. Their connotation is positive; they formulate a property or deliver the illusion of an insight.

18. In their usage the function of the discourse dominates, not its content. These words are more like an instrument of subjugation than like a tool of freedom.

F. General Function

19. By means of their limitless generality they give the impression of filling a gap and of satisfying a need that had not previously existed. In other words, they awaken a need. They reduce all domains to a common denominator and sound an imperative and futuristic note. The words seem to demand that these domains adjust themselves to the words and not vice versa. They draw attention to deficits.

20. Their asocial and ahistorical naturalness reinforces this demand.

21. Their powerful aura of associations demands action.

22. Their many-sided generality brings about consensus.

G. Social and Economic Usefulness

23. Their use distinguishes the speaker from the unremarkable world of the everyday and raises his social prestige; they serve him as rungs on the social ladder.

24. They carry the authority of science into the vernacular: they enforce silence. (In the GDR Marxist-Leninist science was already monumentalized by being the explicit foundation of the state structure. In the Federal Republic the scientific vocabulary pushed itself into a comparable position as an instrument for awakening economic needs.)

25. These words form a bridge to the world of experts. Their content is actually no more than a white spot, but they transmit the “aura” of another world, in which one can obtain information about them. They anchor, in the vernacular, the need for experts. They are pregnant with money. They command resources, and, in the hands of experts, become resources.

26. They can be freely combined, and they are eager to increase themselves through derivation and the creation of compounds. This modular capacity makes them an ideal instrument in the hands of experts interested in the speedy manufacture of models of reality.

H. Time and Place of Dissemination

27. Their scientifically authorized objectivity and universality make the older words of the vernacular appear ideological. A word like “communication” makes alternatives – conversation, discussion, gossip suddenly appear out of date.

28. The words appear as a new type. In recent history such newcomers have evidently been introduced in each epoch. The type in vogue in the 1930s is not the type in vogue in the 1990s.

29. This vocabulary, even if it appears at slightly different times in different places, is international.

I. Connection to Making Oneself Understood without Words

30. The words cannot be made clearer by tone of voice, pantomime, or gesture, and cannot be replaced by these.

Nov 192010

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

Success is the important thing. Propaganda is not a matter for average minds, but rather a matter for practitioners. It is not supposed to be lovely or theoretically correct. I do not care if I give wonderful, aesthetically elegant speeches, or speak so that women cry. The point of a political speech is to persuade people of what we think right. I speak differently in the provinces than I do in Berlin, and when I speak in Bayreuth, I say different things than I say in the Pharus Hall. That is a matter of practice, not of theory.We do not want to be a movement of a few straw brains, but rather a movement that can conquer the broad masses. Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.

There was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted and would anyways always yield to the stronger, and this will always be ‘the man in the street.’ Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.

Intellectual activity is a danger to the building of character.

The rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitive. In the long run basic results in influencing public opinion will be achieved only by the man who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form, despite the objections of the intellectuals.

What you want in a media system is ostensible diversity that conceals an actual uniformity.

It is the absolute right of the State to supervise the formation of public opinion.

We enter parliament in order to supply ourselves, in the arsenal of democracy, with its own weapons. If democracy is so stupid as to give us free tickets and salaries for this bear’s work, that is its affair. We do not come as friends, nor even as neutrals. We come as enemies. As the wolf bursts into the flock, so we come.

We have made the Reich by propaganda.

Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.

Not every item of news should be published. Rather must those who control news policies endeavor to make every item of news serve a certain purpose.

Whoever can conquer the street will one day conquer the state, for every form of power politics and any dictatorship-run state has its roots in the street.

Faith moves mountains, but only knowledge moves them to the right place.

That is of course rather painful for those involved. One should not as a rule reveal one’s secrets, since one does not know if and when one may need them again. The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.

If we are attacked we can only defend ourselves with guns not with butter.

The war made possible for us the solution of a whole series of problems that could never have been solved in normal times.

During a war, news should be given out for instruction rather than information.

When today a clique accuses us of having anti-Christian opinions, I believe that the first Christian, Christ himself, would discover more of his teaching in our actions than in this theological hair-splitting.

A verbal confession cannot suffice; we require an active confession. Christianity to us is no empty form, but rather a continual action.

In the interpretation of the Gospel one may hold the command of God higher than human commands. In the interpretation of political realities, we consider ourselves to be God’s instrument.

If the day should ever come when we [the Nazis] must go, if some day we are compelled to leave the scene of history, we will slam the door so hard that the universe will shake and mankind will stand back in stupefaction.

“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” [this is NOT a quote by Goebbels but is actually from Hitler’s Mein Kampf and often misattributed.]


Based upon “Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda” by Leonard W. Doob, published in Public Opinion and Propaganda: A Book of Readings edited for The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

1. Propagandist must have access to intelligence concerning events and public opinion.

2. Propaganda must be planned and executed by only one authority.

a. It must issue all the propaganda directives.
b. It must explain propaganda directives to important officials and maintain their morale.
c. It must oversee other agencies’ activities which have propaganda consequences

3. The propaganda consequences of an action must be considered in planning that action.

4. Propaganda must affect the enemy’s policy and action.

a. By suppressing propagandistically desirable material which can provide the enemy with useful intelligence
b. By openly disseminating propaganda whose content or tone causes the enemy to draw the desired conclusions
c. By goading the enemy into revealing vital information about himself
d. By making no reference to a desired enemy activity when any reference would discredit that activity

5. Declassified, operational information must be available to implement a propaganda campaign

6. To be perceived, propaganda must evoke the interest of an audience and must be transmitted through an attention-getting communications medium.

7. Credibility alone must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false.

8. The purpose, content and effectiveness of enemy propaganda; the strength and effects of an expose; and the nature of current propaganda campaigns determine whether enemy propaganda should be ignored or refuted.

9. Credibility, intelligence, and the possible effects of communicating determine whether propaganda materials should be censored.

10. Material from enemy propaganda may be utilized in operations when it helps diminish that enemy’s prestige or lends support to the propagandist’s own objective.

11. Black rather than white propaganda may be employed when the latter is less credible or produces undesirable effects.

12. Propaganda may be facilitated by leaders with prestige.

13. Propaganda must be carefully timed.

a. The communication must reach the audience ahead of competing propaganda.
b. A propaganda campaign must begin at the optimum moment
c. A propaganda theme must be repeated, but not beyond some point of diminishing effectiveness

14. Propaganda must label events and people with distinctive phrases or slogans.

a. They must evoke desired responses which the audience previously possesses
b. They must be capable of being easily learned
c. They must be utilized again and again, but only in appropriate situations
d. They must be boomerang-proof

15. Propaganda to the home front must prevent the raising of false hopes which can be blasted by future events.

16. Propaganda to the home front must create an optimum anxiety level.

a. Propaganda must reinforce anxiety concerning the consequences of defeat
b. Propaganda must diminish anxiety (other than concerning the consequences of defeat) which is too high and which cannot be reduced by people themselves

17. Propaganda to the home front must diminish the impact of frustration.

a. Inevitable frustrations must be anticipated
b. Inevitable frustrations must be placed in perspective

18. Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.

19. Propaganda cannot immediately affect strong counter-tendencies; instead it must offer some form of action or diversion, or both.

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