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GEORGE ORWELL AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

GEORGE ORWELL AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

by William H. Benson

January 3, 2013

     Every year since 1976, a college in Michigan, Lake Superior State University, publishes late in the year its List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English. Examples from past years include “first time ever,” and “dot.com.” Among the recently-announced winners for 2012 are: “amazing,” “shared sacrifice,” “occupy,” “man cave,” “the new normal,” “ginormous,” and “thank you in advance,” a phrase that “is a condescending way to say, ‘Since I already thanked you, you have to do this.’”

     The American Dialect Society approaches words differently. Instead of banishing words, it meets early in January each year and votes on the Word of the Year. Last year’s winner was “occupy,” and previous winners include: “app,” “tweet,” “bailout,” and “subprime.” The society will meet on Friday evening this week in Boston and vote. Possible winners are: “YOLO,” (you only live once), “selfie,” (a photograph that you take of yourself), “malarky,” “superstorm,” “double down,” and “fiscal cliff.”

     Looking back at 2012, I think we can agree that because it was a presidential election year, we were inundated for twelve months with words. We heard arguments for and against the issues: healthcare, the budget, the deficit, taxes, spending, and the fiscal crisis. We listened to debates, and infrequently we heard words filled with substance. More often we heard vapid words filled with air.

     Whenever the focus is upon words, I gravitate repeatedly back to the British writer George Orwell, who wrote in 1946 a most perceptive column, “Politics and the English Language.” Although seldom applied to our English prose, his column deserves frequent re-reading.

     He begins by saying that “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way,” and that, “Our civilization is decadent and our language must share in the general collapse.” Orwell points out “the slovenliness of our language,” and that all bad writing, he contends, has two common qualities: “staleness of imagery,” and “lack of precision.”

     “Prose,” he writes, “consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a henhouse.”

     Orwell then mentions four categories of bad writing. Examples of dying metaphors he lists are: “an axe to grind,” “ride roughshod over,” and “toe the line.” Verbal false limbs are empty words, such as “render inoperative,” “be subjected to,” “give rise to,” “have the effect of,” and “make itself felt.”

     Pretentious diction are words designed to impress, such as the words “phenomenon, objective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, exhibit, utilize, and eliminate,” Then, there are the meaningless words used especially in art and literary criticism: “romantic, plastic, values, human, sentimental, natural, and vitality.” Difficult to define, such words evade meaning.

     Orwell calls these four categories a “catalog of swindles and perversions,” an apt description.

     Instead, he cites an example of excellent English prose: “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.” For those unacquainted with the King James Bible, one can find those words in Ecclesiastes.

     Orwell then translates the same words into modern English: “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.”

     Everyone, except perhaps a government official, would rather read the King James version.

     Orwell ends his article with a frightening thought. “One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language.” Although he does not say it, he implies that if we dared to use imagery and precision in our language, we will clear the chaos, find our way, and solve issues.

     With a new year beginning, it is now the goal-setting season. Included among my goals for 2013: to strengthen my vocabulary, work imagery and precision into my language, avoid the trite and hackneyed cliche, and perhaps coin some new words. For a first example, how about “inrageous,” a less strident form of “outrageous?” Instead of being outraged, people might be “inraged.”

     Above all else, I will avoid those words I find most disagreeable, such as “24-7,” “seriously,” “going forward,” and “as you know,” a phrase writers frequently use as a forerunner before giving their opinion. I say that a writer should not assume that a reader knows what the writer is about to write.

     Today the most overworked word in the English language is “excited.” The words “I’m excited” cover a lot of territory. Is anyone ever agitated, disturbed, fretful, confused, bewildered, enthused, pleased, or are we all just excited? We are definitely not “excited” about our less than “amazing” political leadership, and we would hesitate to “thank them in advance,” “as you know,” “24-7.”