Paul Greenberg

George Orwell's nightmarish vision of the future in his novel "1984" didn't end on its last page. For it left behind a whole language with its own rules, vocabulary, purpose, and still continuing relevance: Newspeak.

Nor did "1984" begin as fiction, being firmly rooted in the actual theory and practice of fascism and communism, the twin horrors of Orwell's time. The book retains its power to this day, a power the Soviets recognized when they banned it.

When we landed in what was still Leningrad in 1983 (it would not become St. Petersburg again till the Soviet Union imploded nearly a decade later), our group of visiting American editors was carefully questioned, our baggage searched, and subversive literature like "1984" confiscated. A fascist/communist regime can't be too careful. Ideas may prove contagious. As they would in the now happily former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which is just plain Russia once again.

A name is a powerful thing, and when it changes, it's a sign a lot of other things have changed -- or will. The same applies to words in general. They're not just words, they're signs of where we are and whither we are tending, to borrow a phrase of Mr. Lincoln's.

Vocabulary remains the Little Round Top of any struggle of ideas. It's the dominating height that can decide the outcome of the entire battle. Whoever seizes and holds it has a strategic advantage. It matters -- a lot -- whether people call it the death tax or the estate tax, Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act, racial quotas or affirmative action. It isn't just in totalitarian societies that language is used to restrict thought, not just express it.

It takes only a glance at today's political language to realize that Newspeak has outlasted the Soviet system that inspired it. Note this headline on the front page of my local paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the other Sunday: "Hundreds rally for women's rights." Who could be against women's rights?

The story's lede, or its opening paragraph, begins: "A few hundred people rallied outside the state Capitol on Saturday to advocate for abortion rights....." Not "legalized abortion," and certainly not "the destruction of innocent life," but abortion rights. Who could be against rights? George Orwell described what was going on here in his classic and all too prescient essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it, he noted:

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.