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How the language of ‘fake news’ echoes 20th-century propaganda

Blog • • Dr James McElvenny

A favourite trope of our times, called up and called out across the political spectrum, is the spectre of ‘fake news’. The prototype of this malignant contribution to our public discourse are the smears and hate spread through the new channels of social media and amplified by a new breed of politician whose relationship to facts is more fraught than ever. But how novel are these phenomena really? A glance back just one hundred years may leave us with an unmistakable sense of déjà-vu.

Political propaganda in the early 20th century

The first half of the last century saw political polarisation and conflict that led to some of the worst atrocities in human history: global and local wars, persecution, murder and destruction on a scale previously unknown. Accompanying and in no small part facilitating this real violence was the intellectual violence of political propaganda. This was spread through pamphlets, tracts and speeches, but also through the deft exploitation of new technologies such as radio and talking films.

Professor Jo Fox discusses atrocities utilised by propagandists, such as the invasion of Belgium in 1914, the execution of Edith Cavell and the sinking of the Lusitania. © British Library

An urgent concern of numerous philosophers and language scholars in this period was to apply their research to expose the workings of propaganda and overcome its pernicious effects. This was the ambition driving the English scholars C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards in their 1923 book The Meaning of Meaning, composed in the wake of the First World War. They sought to investigate how meaning is made – and abused – in language. Their hope was that their ‘science of symbolism’ could be used to combat the excesses of ‘word magic’.

Political activism among philosophers and language scholars

The activist underpinnings of Ogden and Richards’ book were a common feature in their milieu. Ogden, in particular, keenly sought out contact with like-minded contemporaries. Chief among these was Bertrand Russell, a founding figure of analytic philosophy and a prominent pacifist throughout his life. At the time he met Ogden he was an opponent of the First World War, and later he became an advocate of nuclear disarmament. While Russell often demurred when asked about the links between his philosophy and his activism, at base both undeniably wield analysis of empirical evidence as weapons against obscurity and delusion.

Ogden’s other great correspondents – and occasional collaborators – in these years, the Vienna Circle philosophers Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap, were less shy about connecting their scholarship to their activism. Neurath embarked on a number of public education projects informed by his philosophy. The common theme uniting the thinking of Ogden, Richards, Neurath and Carnap was a detailed critique of meaning in language, supplemented with remedies for when it runs awry.

Languages that force us to ‘express ourselves clearly and logically’

Among Ogden and Richards’ therapeutic proposals was their ‘method of definition’, a procedure for analysing words to uncover what they really mean. A scientific definition, on Ogden and Richards’ understanding, will unpack a word to show all the thoughts it contains and ultimately link these thoughts to everyday experience. If no such link can be established, the word is considered to be purely emotive.

In later work, Richards developed this method of definition further and fashioned it into a tool of literary interpretation that became central to the New Criticism, popular in America after the Second World War. Ogden, on the other hand, turned the method against the English language itself to distil his own idiom, Basic English.

Basic English was intended to be a simple, philosophically sound language, suitable for international communication. Initially, the project was conceived as a contribution to the international language movement of the day. This was a movement that fetishised ‘logical’ expression and gave us such constructed languages as Esperanto and Ido. The centrepiece of Ogden’s Basic was a restricted core vocabulary of 850 words, ‘scientifically selected’ for their semantic reliability using the method of definition.

By saying no more than that which can be paraphrased using the Basic core vocabulary, Ogden argued, we are forced to express ourselves clearly and logically. From its first appearance in 1927 until just after the Second World War, Basic attracted many admirers. Among the most prominent of these was Winston Churchill, who saw great advantage in gifting the world a sanitised English to improve mental hygiene. ‘The empires of the future’, Churchill proclaimed in 1943, ‘are the empires of the mind’.

George Orwell’s changing position on Basic English

George Orwell was a more ambivalent supporter. The cultivation of clear, thoughtful expression through simple, everyday words was an ideal that underlay both Basic and Orwell’s own writings on style. Orwell was even professionally involved with Basic: at the Indian Section of the BBC in the 1940s, he produced a programme outlining the principles of the language. In his correspondence with Ogden at the time, he described his efforts to get Basic on the air, despite ‘great resistance’ in some quarters of the BBC. But Orwell’s support would seem to have wavered in the second half of the decade. 

 Ingsoc logo based on Orwell's 1984 (not precisely described in the book itself; seen in the film adaptation Nineteen Eighty-Four). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0.

 Ingsoc logo based on Orwell's 1984 (not precisely described in the book itself; seen in the film adaptation Nineteen Eighty-Four). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0

Although Newspeak, the fictional language of his novel 1984, parodies various linguistic innovations of the time, it clearly has Basic as one of its targets. The central feature of Newspeak is its restricted vocabulary, which is constantly being reduced to diminish the range of possible thought.

Engineering languages to aid ‘clear thought’

Ogden’s contact with Neurath blossomed into collaboration on several language engineering projects, similarly based on common points in Ogden’s and Neurath’s respective philosophies of language. Battling against ‘metaphysics’, a term he used to denounce any thinking that did not meet his scientific standards, Neurath advocated reforming the language of science by basing it on expressions of immediate experience.

An outgrowth of Neurath’s educational efforts was ‘Isotype’, a picture language originally designed to convey statistical and economic information to lay audiences. Pictures, claimed Neurath, can only show concrete things and so circumvent the perils of abstraction that lead to metaphysics. During the 1930s, Basic and Isotype became increasingly intertwined through publications in which Isotype was explained in Basic and Basic illustrated through Isotype. Neurath thought that both Basic and Isotype could serve as an ‘education in clear thought’.

Philosophy of language

The century or so that separates us from these figures has witnessed great leaps in communication technology and evolution in our public discourse. In the constantly connected present with its trumped-up trolls, we may even feel a sense of nostalgia for the quaint propaganda of the past, even if we recall the horrors it brought upon the world. Similarly, philosophy of language has undergone innumerable developments – and we may smirk at the modernist naivety of our predecessors’ views on meaning, their earnest little projects to improve language.

But the lies, bile and buffoonery that infuse our discourse today are of a piece with the propaganda of their time – and no less dangerous. Perhaps we would do well to embrace our predecessors’ critical intellectual spirit and strive to lay bare the workings – and abuses – of language and meaning.


Dr James McElvenny received a Newton International Fellowship in 2017. He is based in the Department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Language and Meaning in the Age of Modernism: C. K. Ogden and his Contemporaries.

Blog • • Dr James McElvenny