China announced a ban on puns and casual alteration of idioms last week, warning that wordplay could lead to”cultural and linguistic chaos.”
If you think that sounds Orwellian, then you’re right.
The dystopian government in “1984” strictly limited the use of language to prohibit puns and all forms of double meaning. Called Newspeak, this system was central to state control.
As explained in the book’s appendix:
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.
China suggested more lighthearted reasons for banning puns in its official announcement, criticising a provincial ad campaign that punned off the similar words for “perfection” and “magnificent Shanxi.”
But everyone knows there are other puns that China is more worried about.
Quartz’s Nikhil Sonnad points out that a recent pun in circulation connects Chinese president Xi Jinping to marijuana.
China actually bans hundreds of terms. Among the most notable is “May 35,” which arose as a trick to get around censorship of “June 4,” which is the day of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
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