English language still declining

Posted 11/19/10

Recently, a colleague sent me a link to George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language." (One version can be found at …

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English language still declining


Recently, a colleague sent me a link to George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language." (One version can be found at http://xahlee.org/p/george_orwell_english.html.) In it, Orwell, author of both "1984" and "Animal Farm," takes aim against what he calls "the decline of language." He provides many examples.

The essay was published in 1946. But its insights remain fresh. For instance, he writes, "In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing." Few who endured the recent election season would argue with that one.

He continued, "Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a 'party line.' Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style."

That's true, too. In print, as in conversation, when people start repeating themselves, it's because they have run out of anything new to say. They invest the cliché and its repetition with a belief in its wisdom. Such clichés are comforting to some, like the choral response of a prayer.

Under the section, "Meaningless Words," he writes, "The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" Substitute "socialism" for "fascism," and it could be 2010.

Don't believe me? Next time somebody uses the term around you, ask him or her to define it. Then ask if professional fire departments fit the definition, and if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Orwell also quotes from my favorite Old Testament book, 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 favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." Such strong, clear, wonderful writing!

Then he translates it into what passed for educated prose in 1946. "Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels 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."

That reminds me of my favorite sentence, whose mellifluous rhythms so enchanted me as a child that I memorized it: "Crest has been shown to be an effective decay preventive dentifrice that can be of significant value when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care." Or as my mother put it, "brush your teeth and go to the dentist every six months, or your teeth will fall out."

It's fun to find bad examples of language. But Orwell offered some positive suggestions, too.

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It's not bad advice … for a socialist.

Jamie LaRue is director of Douglas County Libraries. LaRue's Views are his own.


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