Friday, July 10, 2015

George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"

Someone, maybe one of you, reminded me that this essay was available online. I've just read through it again. While it doesn't address such timely issues as the changes in the language wrought by feminism, which were a bit before his time, or even the politics of "Newspeak" as related in his dystopian novel 1984, it does address the deterioration of language found especially in political writing, and offers some advice in the way of remedies in writing style.

He offers five examples, one of which is from the book Essay in Freedom of Expresseion by the political philosopher, Harold Laski:
I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.
Multiple negatives, anyone?

What each of his five excerpts share, he says is "staleness of imagery" and "lack of precision"; instead of choosing words for their meaning, they cobble together phrases like "sections of a prefabricated hen-house" -- phrases like take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, play into the hands of, on the order of the day, etc. Instead of simply choosing a clear word, such phrases are often used, sometimes mixing incompatible metaphors, and sometimes without any apparent knowledge of their meaning.

Orwell discusses four "tricks" by means of which writers habitually attempt to dodge the hard work of honest prose-construction:
  1. Dying metaphors -- still in use, but without meaningful context for understanding their meaning, like take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, grist to the mill, no axe to grind,, on the order of the day, etc.
  2. Operators or verbal false limbs -- substituting phrases for simple verbs, typically in the passive voice, such as render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give grounds for, have the effect of, exhibit a tendency to, etc. Often noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining), and various -ize, de- and not un- formations are employed in "banal statements" to give "an appearance of profundity." Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, etc., and sentences anticlimactically (and clumsily) ended by phrases such as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, deserving serious consideration, etc.
  3. Pretentious diction -- words like phenomenal, categorical, virtual, constitutive, etc.; or adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, inexorable, veritable, etc.; or foreign words like cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, weltanschauung, etc.; or unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, deracinated, etc.; or Marxist jargon like petty bourgeois, these gentry, proletarian, lackey, White Guard, etc.
  4. Meaningless words -- particularly of the kind used in art criticism, such as vital, natural, human, dead, sentimental, values, romantic, etc. (One could think of numerous analogues in wine tasting, interior decorating, etc.) Political words are similarly abused, says Orwell, such as fascism, democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, etc., each of which has several different meanings that cannot be reconciled with one another; and a similar case could be made for class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality, etc. But then, these are the sorts of equivocations on which politicians thrive.
A particularly delicious example of bog language is one created by Orwell himself. First, he offers the well-known verse from Ecclesiastes
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Then here it is in "modern English" in Orwell's own parody:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
There is, of course much, much more in this fascinating essay; but one of the most helpful bits is provided, I suppose, in the following rules that Orwell suggests "will cover most cases":
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Perhaps some Vatican writers of ecclesial documents could benefit from Orwell's little essay!

One of the first things I noticed was how counter-intuitive some of his recommendations are. In an age of postmodern purple prose, the idea seems to be to choose a much bigger, more ornate word wherever a simpler word would do. Some of the phrases and words Orwell criticizes are everywhere ('ubiquitous'?!) in academic writing. I admit to using quite a few of them myself.

I'm reminded, finally, of two wonderful quotations I've admired for decades, even if I have not always practiced their wisdom:
  • “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very'; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
    -- C.S. Lewis 

  • “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” -- Albert Einstein


Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Mr. Orwell neglected to identify as bad writing the unlikely-to-occur- in-the-real-world possibility exemplified by this yirn-inducing example

If the Daughter of The Black Congressional Caucus Member, Rep. Marcia Fudge, married the son of former NCAA Basketball Announcer, Billy Packer, her name would be Mrs. Fudge-Packer.

Chris said...

Strunk and White have a gem: make every word count.

Think how the word "love" is used now. If two people love each other...... [and similar stuff]. He's quite right about words such as "reactionary", "bourgeois", and words of that ilk. "On the wrong side of history" is a charming phrase, but perhaps we should consider what it conveys? Wouldn't the value of "obstructionist" depend on what was being obstructed?

I'm sad to think how much "professional educators" have had a willing hand in rendering the language flaccid and turgid at the same time. What expressions are not tolerated now (in the age of toleration and non-judgmentalism): blind, deaf, dumb; winner, best, good.

Chris said...

Of course, then there are these words:

1) diverse: "This school is very diverse: it's 60% Latino."
2) progress: "You can't stand in the way of progress".
3) compromise: "Doctrinaire positions don't help: what we need is a spirit of compromise."
4) tolerant: "If there's one thing we can't tolerate, it's intolerance."
5) change: "Hope and change"