“The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology.”

 

— E. F. Schumacher

Regardless of where your views fall on the political spectrum, there's a pretty good chance that you subscribe to the idea that we are in a new age of inauthenticity. Both the American Dialect Society and Collins Dictionary declared "fake news" the Word of the Year for 2017. It's now a standard trope in public discourse to acknowledge that the social media enabled by modern technology results in a greatly enhanced ability for all of us to share, and be exposed to, misinformation, the older and less precise term for "fake news".

Since 2017, the two biggest Anglophone communities in the world, Britain and the United States, have both sunk deeper into divided and fortified camps: the Leavers and Remainers in the UK are split around the question of Brexit with their contrasting narratives of its merits and flaws, and the supporters and detractors of President Trump in the US engage in a continuous barrage of accusations of lies and distortions on what each perceives as the other side.

How does language figure in these unfortunate schisms in English-speaking polities? Quite centrally: it's the medium in which nearly every deception and every evasion or distortion of truth is carried out. And language is tailor-made for that task. Nature has a very limited scope for deception, pretty much confined to camouflage in its various forms. But language has unlimited scope for deception because it's already a step removed from reality; it can at best be an imperfect representation of it, and at worst an intentionally malicious falsification of it.

Humanity has developed an arsenal of ways to use language in order to produce some effect that goes beyond accurate and unbiased representation. There's even an argument, often called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language does this by its very nature, without any intention on the part of speakers to distort: in other words, language itself introduces bias by directing our attention or thought to a limited or particular interpretation of what is presented to our senses. But even without linguistic relativity (another name for the aforementioned hypothesis), we have innumerable ways to use language combined with intention to favor a particular reduction or distortion of facts and actual events.

The modern, shorthand name for this general distorting facility is spin, a term that, along with its proliferating compounds (spin doctor, spinmeister, spin room), has seen increasing use since the 1970s. The older and at one time more respectable term for this facility is rhetoric. Aristotle wrote the defining treatise on rhetoric, and it was a required subject of study in medieval universities. "Persuasive rhetoric" and "brilliant rhetoric" were once fairly frequent collocations in English. Today, those are outgunned by "empty rhetoric" and "mere rhetoric". Spin has been a pejorative term from the get-go.

Is there something particular about English that has resulted in the largest populations of native speakers of this language falling into such intractable us-vs.-them mentalities? Probably not: History has shown that speakers of any language can end up in polarized groups in which each devotes unlimited time and attention to vilifying the other side. On the other hand, English has no obligatory features that might encourage the reporting of truths, as opposed to supposed truths, possible truths, or merely reported as opposed to verified truths. English does not have an inferential mood, like some other languages, which distinguishes between witnessed and merely reported events. And evidentiality is not a grammatical category in English; speakers are not obliged by any grammatical construction to say how they know what they know, as they are in some languages.

Perhaps as a remedy for this plague of misinformation in English, there are distinct changes in usage around the words we use to evaluate what we see and hear. This graph, for example, shows a broad marked increase in the use of the noun authentication, but an especially sharp increase in the collocations "provide authentication" and "require authentication". Drilling down into the citations on these predicates shows that many of them — as you may suspect — have to do with computation. But many others occur in legal, commercial, and political spheres.

Another sharp explosion in usage came around 1930, when the insertion of reportedly and allegedly before various verbs began a rapid increase.

What would account for this? Were writers formerly less inclined to commit to paper statements that had not yet been verified? Or were they worried about a greater likelihood of being held accountable? There is some evidence suggesting the latter: the phrase "sued for libel" also shows a sharp increase starting around 1930, and it has been steadily rising since.

The fact that our societies remain entrenched in division suggests that the linguistic remedies floated above are in fact not remedies at all, and this is surely not surprising: language alone can't be expected to solve a problem that language itself is partly responsible for. The quote from E. F. Schumacher that I began with might suggest that technology exacerbates our problem, and hardly anyone would dispute this. But again, it does not seem promising to look to technology to solve a problem that technology has magnified. So it behooves us all to maintain a healthy skepticism about information generally. The modern world makes it even more of a challenge to "get real" when we are communicating with language.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 1st, 5:25 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
Why is "get-go" better than "beginning" or "outset"?
Wednesday May 1st, 1:01 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Gosh, the sun must not be shining in Surrey! No assertion that it's better. It's just the word that I used. Have a great day.
Thursday May 2nd, 9:58 AM
Comment by: William M. (Boston, MA)
Dropping a charming colloquialism like "get-go" into a fairly heady examination of linguistic phenomena is not just an entertaining stylistic tic, it's exactly like dripping a few drops of balsamic vinegar into a rich and unctuous sauce. It delivers a little pop, a little surprise, a little upbeat contrast that makes the person eating the food or reading the article keep paying attention.

I enjoyed this article from the outset/beginning/get-go, Orin. And I learned a lot.

Thank you.
Monday May 6th, 1:08 PM
Comment by: Jacquelyn M.
From the get-go, I learned of the "Age of Inauthenticity." Now it just doesn't get any better than that.
Tuesday May 7th, 3:11 PM
Comment by: Gail B. (Budgewoi Australia)
Dear Orin - I have tried to write a comment on my phone & then “lost it” into the ether of the internet - later today I will access on my computer & respond? It may have come to you as incomplete - if so - please email it to me to finish at gailbrown@designedlearning.com.au? If it has disappeared forever - maybe that’s a sign of how “fragile” all online content really is? I really liked your article - as an educator & a parent! People are real & as an educator- I feel responsibility to encourage “healthy skepticism” in both students & teachers! Many thanks! Gail
Wednesday May 8th, 10:36 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Gail. I have not received anything from you, but I am easily findable on the Internet, with various contact addresses.

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