The great enemy
of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s
declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms,
like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of
politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly,
hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer
Since the current news and European affairs depress me deeply (who would not be depressed, as a citizen of the European Union, by the sight of the beloved blue flag being brandished, at the same time as the ignoble logos of a hated nazi past), I have sought refuge, and solace, in classics. As part of my research for the A to Z Challenge (more about it in April!) I have re-read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, and some of the interesting articles the Wikipedia editors have dedicated to the subject.
“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.”
Orwell denounced the unctuous use of metaphors to hide atrocities:
“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 the 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.”
Orwell’s positions were countered by post-modernist Judith Butler who claimed “…that difficult concepts need to be expressed with specialised vocabulary, or jargon. She quotes Marcuse, who believes that if people could use plain language to describe something, they would. She is attempting to prove that jargon is natural and necessary. Butler also says ‘language conditions thought,’ meaning that the words we use shape the way we think.”
But it is not simply “the words we use”. As Orwell understood better than anyone else it is the words we are fed daily by the mass media, the words we read, hear, the images see even, if we do not not always understand their implications, and the intent behind them.
The “liberal media” has developed an entire vocabulary of euphemisms: “international community” (summoned whenever the bad side is to be chastised), “national sovereignty” (being threatened now by Russia in the Ukraine, but trampled on in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Venezuela, Syria, Okinawa, whenever it suits the Super Power), and of course ready-made phrases that evoke the UN Charter – conspicuously ignored when it comes to Palestine, but remembered when it suits, again, the Department of State and its cronies.
So, back to George Orwell, his recommendations for good writing, are worth considering time and time again, in our efforts toward clear and understandable language (they may even help us to overcome despair):
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.