I’ve read George Orwell’s seminal masterpiece 1984 twice, and it remains my favorite dystopic novel of all time to this day. One the most interesting points the book raises is that language is extremely malleable and can be distorted for political purposes, as we can see from the State imposing “Newspeak” on its people to limit their ability to express negative thoughts about their government. I'm particularly fond of one concept, that 2+2 could equal 5. This makes no mathematical sense to us, but it could make linguistic sense. Definitions are inherently subjective and contingent on the vox populi. If everybody agrees that a false statement is true, who's to say that it is false? The meanings we attribute to the numbers 2 or 5 could shift, and then the equation would be correct. Orwell's math is a constant reminder to me that all of language is arbitrary and could be changed. This idea, though, predates 1984 by quite a while: it was actually Descartes who first posited that an equation like 2+2=4 has no reality outside of our minds, and 2+2=5 has been around as classic falsehood since 1728. Orwell had also expressed the notion prior to 1984, using it to explain how Nazi propaganda influenced subjective truths in his 1943 essay Looking Back on the Spanish War. Ah! What a fascinating topic!
Adam Aleksic is a 221-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law. Adam will be studying linguistics at Harvard University in the fall.
The Etymology Nerd