Plastic word

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Concept.png Plastic word
(Statecraft,  Word)Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Plastic words.jpg
Plastic words, with minimal substantive meaning and which avoid clear definition, are useful as tools of misdirection.

Plastic words and phrases are language which is used so commonly and widely as to lose its meaning, but which continues to be used as a performance rather than to convey clear meaning. They are widely used as tools of propaganda and are particularly insidious when passed into law.

“Words strain - Crack and sometimes break, under the burden - Under the tension, slip, slide, perish - Will not stay still... For last year's words belong to last year's language - And next year's words await another voice.”
T. S. Elliot (1943)  [1]


In 1946, George Orwell published in Politics and the English Language a section entitled "Meaningless Words":

“In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, ‘The outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality’, while another writes, ‘The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness’, the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.”
George Orwell (1946)  [2]

In 1971, Ivan Illich wrote in Deschooling Society about empty word husks which he likened to amoebas, because they were so flexible. In his 1973 Tools for Conviviality, Illich wrote that language had come to "reflect the monopoly of the industrial mode of production over perception and motivation."[3]

The concept was developed by the German linguist Uwe Pörksen in his 1988 Plastikwörter: Die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur (literal translation into English: Plastic words: The language of an international dictatorship) "in which he describes the emergence and steady expansion during the latter half of the 20th century of selected words that are incredibly malleable yet empty when it comes to their actual meaning. Plastic words have surreptitiously seeped into our everyday language and dictate how we think. They have been imported from the languages of science, technology and mathematics, and thus appear to be imbued with their authority."[4]

Illich included the word life as a plastic word.[5]

21st century

Exonymic plastic words, often enemy images, are increasingly appealed to in an effort try to justify perpetual war. In 1979 the JCIT marked the beginning of development of the "terrorism" meme. After 2001, the language was developed to include "extremism" (both violent and non-violent). The concept of "radicalisation" has been developed[By whom?] to facilitate internet censorship.

Fake News (Website)

In late 2016, the plastic phrase "Fake News Website" was launched on commercially-controlled media, in an effort to try to steer people away from less rigidly controlled websites back to corporate media. However, this proved too cumbersome (apart from obviously being misleading, since news does not stay confined to particular websites, but travels across media). Therefore, it lead to the phrase "Fake news", a modern synonym for "propaganda". Suspicion of corporate media continued to decline.

"Language of Tyranny"

Citing Uwe Pörksen, Jalees Rehman published an article in 2017 entitled Plastic Words are Hollow Shells for Rigid Ideas: The Ever-Expanding Language of Tyranny. This mentioned the use of words such as "security", "safety" and "welfare" by the US government.[6]


This website is a venue of ongoing research into the development of these words. Researchers into plastic words are pointed to Google Trends as a very valuable tool. Sometimes specific phrases are launched by a particular event. Further insight is available through the history and creation dates of Wikipedia pages.

Usage on this website

Plastic words are useful because they are flexible, and hence misleading. When used here they should only (like any words to which the "so-called" property applies)[7] only be used inside quotation marks.



Page nameDescription
"Countering disinformation"
"Domestic extremism"
"Enemy combatant"
"Fake News"
"Far right"
"Hate crime"
"National interest"
"Open government"


Related Quotations

George Carlin“Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins. It's as simple as that. The CIA doesn't kill anybody anymore, they neutralize people, or they depopulate the area. The government doesn't lie, it engages in disinformation. The Pentagon actually measures nuclear radiation in something they call sunshine units. Israeli murderers are called commandos, Arab commandos are called terrorists. Contra killers are called freedom fighters. Well, if crime fighters fight crime, and firefighters fight fires, what do freedom fighters fight?”George Carlin
Cult“The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly selective, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. They become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”Robert Jay Lifton1961