Is there a word or phrase which describes "choice of misleading words", or the negation: "choice of non-misleading words"? The nearest phrases I can think of are linguistic deception, or controlled language, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

For example, Richard Stallman actively opposes such misuse of language:

I think it is ok for authors (please let's not call them creators, they are not gods) to ask for money for copies of their works (please let's not devalue these works by calling them content) in order to gain income (the term compensation falsely implies it is a matter of making up for some kind of damages).

Another example is "credit" in banking, which just makes "debt" sound like a good thing.

EDIT: The term may either refer to an individual's malicious use of misleading terminology, or to widely-accepted use of misleading terminology. The answers reflect this, but my question does not.

  • See also all the references here on 'obscurantism' – Mitch May 28 '19 at 13:43
  • The duplicate is not well titled, but OP there states "... this is not meant to be about politics but strictly language usage". – Edwin Ashworth May 30 '19 at 13:49
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    People not agreeing with you about what words to use is not "dishonesty". – Acccumulation Jun 6 '19 at 14:39

10 Answers 10


In addition to George Orwell, I would like to mention political consultant Frank Luntz. During the last two decades he has become the poster boy for the strategy of methodically crafting vocabularies to frame the political discourse to the benefit of your side. Here are some examples of political neologisms attributed to him:

  • Death tax (instead of estate tax)
  • Climate change (instead of global warming)
  • Government takeover (of healthcare)
  • Energy exploration (instead of oil drilling)

I have seen terms such as luntzism, luntzian or luntzspeak used to refer to this type of neologisms, but I don't think any of them have caught on. These words would probably only be understandable by people who are familiar with Luntz.

I think Richard Stallman's objections to the words he mentions in parenthesis is not that he thinks people will misunderstand what they refer to, but that they will induce a certain way of thinking about the things they refer to, much like Luntz's phrases are designed to do.

George Orwell first wrote about something similar in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

By his own account, Frank Luntz was heavily influenced by reading Politics and The English Language, but probably not in the way Orwell had intended.

  • You hit the nail on the head with your observation of the difference between causing misunderstanding and causing change in the way of thinking. While luntzism is far from widely usable, it captures the desired meaning better than any of the other proposed words. – MrMartin Feb 26 '20 at 15:38

George Orwell, in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, used the terms doublethink (the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct) and Newspeak (a controlled language of restricted grammar and limited vocabulary, meant to limit the freedom of thought). These two have been combined to form the term doublespeak (frequently incorrectly attributed to Orwell's 1984) meaning "language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words." More information and references at Wikipedia. The OP mentioned Nineteen Eighty-Four but not doublespeak.

  • Exactly! I didn't realize the term had entered common use. – MrMartin May 28 '19 at 13:35
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    @MrMartin Yes, it has been common (or common enough) since the 80's](books.google.com/ngrams/…) (though I thought it was more common in the 60's than the graph shows (1984 was published in 1948). – Mitch May 28 '19 at 13:47
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    As the Wikipedia article points out, "doublespeak" is not in "1984". The term used there is "newspeak". – Drew May 28 '19 at 20:32
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    First known use of "doublespeak" after publication of "1984" is not the same thing as "1984" itself having the first use of "doublespeak". – Drew May 29 '19 at 1:18
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    Using doublespeak is double plus ungood. – JimmyJames May 29 '19 at 19:38

How about:

1 Make obscure, unclear, or unintelligible.

‘the spelling changes will deform some familiar words and obfuscate their etymological origins’

1.1 Bewilder (someone) ‘the new rule is more likely to obfuscate people than enlighten them’


"The use of obfuscating language hid their true meaning"

mass noun
1 The action of making something obscure, unclear, or unintelligible.

‘when confronted with sharp questions they resort to obfuscation’
count noun ‘ministers put up mealy-mouthed denials and obfuscations’

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    +1 but obfuscation is probably the noun that would fit the OP's question. – Greenonline May 30 '19 at 4:16

When a writer or speaker prevaricates, he chooses misleading words.

Part of the M-W usage notes:

Prevaricate and its synonyms "lie" and "equivocate" all refer to playing fast and loose with the truth. "Lie" is the bluntest of the three. When you accuse someone of lying, you are saying he or she was intentionally dishonest, no bones about it. "Prevaricate" is less accusatory and softens the bluntness of "lie," usually implying that someone is evading the truth rather than purposely making false statements. "Equivocate" is similar to "prevaricate," but it generally implies that someone is deliberately using words that have more than one meaning as a way to conceal the truth.

  • That's very close to the desired meaning, although prevaricating seems to be more about speaking evasively to escape accusation, rather than in the sense of misleading to manipulate. This is not clear from my question, but it is the meaning of the quote. – MrMartin May 28 '19 at 12:28
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    @MrMartin But that's what misleading is. – Mitch May 28 '19 at 13:44
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    Prevaricate is exactly the word that matches the OP's leading definition, with its focus on misleading. But the examples are of weasel-words and euphemisms. – CCTO May 29 '19 at 19:15

Another choice might be weasel words


: a word used in order to evade or retreat from a direct or forthright statement or position

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    Helpful reminder: code-blocks here are exclusively for quoting code; please use *italics*, **bold** or >quotes. – Lordology May 28 '19 at 19:40
  • A good single-word synonom for this would be "legalese" or "legaleese" both rhyming with "sleeze" – Criggie May 29 '19 at 0:19

There's always that gem from Churchill;

"terminological inexactitude."

This is often used to say someone is lying, but also means exactly what it says; being inexact in one's terminology, or using misleading words, or words intended to mislead.


This is an interesting example, because Stallman is talking tendentious nonsense. There are many cases in this world where language is misused with intent to deceive, but none of the examples he gives are anything of the kind.

In modern North American English, when we call a creative person a "creator", we all agree that we mean they create something, usually intangible, usually for pay: They draw pictures, or write poems, or computer programs, or songs, or some such. There is no implication at all that the person is a god, or god-like, in any way. Literally nobody on this planet actually believes that, nobody in this discussion, nobody anywhere -- with the possible exception of Richard Stallman, who's a professional controversialist. It's quite possible that he believed it while he was saying it. I suppose it's even possible that he believes it still. But Richard Stallman doesn't have the authority to redefine the English language for the rest of us.

Likewise, in Cambridge, MA where Stallman has lived for decades, if you say "compensation" in any context remotely job-related and nobody had mentioned a lawsuit, people assume you're talking about how much they get paid (source: Eleven years living in Cambridge and Somerville and working at software startups around town and on Route 128. Also, a dictionary).

More importantly: If these terms were somehow inaccurate, exactly who would be misleading who, and in what way? Where is the "deception" here? If somebody refers to my salary as "compensation", are they trying to deceive me into believing I've been damaged or injured in some way by showing up at the office (or the asteroid mine)? Does that even begin to make sense? It's quite accurate to say that work costs me time I could be devoting to something else, but there's no suggestion that my employer has done me any wrong. It's absolutely normal for a word to have two different meanings in two different contexts. "Drive" means one thing when I'm talking to the IT guy about my new laptop, another thing on my guitar pedalboard, and a third when we're getting in the car to go camping. No native speaker of English, including Richard Stallman, finds this at all confusing. Last night a singer said to me, "The bridge is the hook, let's repeat it before the last verse". Nobody thought she was trying to trick me into becoming a pirate and driving to work the wrong way (look, I just maliciously tricked you into thinking that my car is a signal-processing device).

If somebody refers to me as a "creator" of code, or of songs, are they really trying to trick me into thinking I have divine powers? Is that even imaginable?

No. People just like the sound of these words, the same way many younger suburban northeastern American white people seem to like to say "y'all" and "on the regular".

I haven't heard code described as "content", ever (unless in the sense of a MIME content type), but there are a lot of things I haven't heard, so I'll let that one pass.

As somebody said in comments, this is just "Stallman being Stallman". He's a well-known controversialist and gadfly in the field of computer programming. He wears funny colorful clothing and says colorful things to get attention. Exhibit A above. The disingenuous literal-mindedness game he's playing is common to computer programmers and baby-boomer political hippies; he's both.

His net contribution to the field has been massively positive in my view, and his self-promotion has been part of that. You don't have to like the guy to appreciate the immense value of what he's done. But that's another subject.

The only thing interesting here is the irony: Stallman and the folks waving the 1984 flag are deliberately misrepresenting the meanings of these words.


I'm a fan of bamboozle:

to conceal one's true motives from, especially by elaborately feigning good intentions so as to gain an end


Why not euphemism?

From Greek euphemismos "use of a favorable word in place of an inauspicious one.”


I'm not sure if you're looking for a verb meaning "to use misleading words" or if you're looking for a noun referring to the misleading words themselves or the act of using misleading words.

Either way, consider an adjective: Disingenuous

disingenuous (adj). Lacking in candor. Also : giving a false appearance of simple frankness: CALCULATING.

(From Merriam-Webster online: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/disingenuous?utm_campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld)

While I'm not finding this (explicitly) in any dictionary definitions, I'm also used to "disingenuous" carrying a connotation of being manipulative or sneaky.

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