January 31, 2005

Essay #3 (Response)

Posted in writing at 3:18 pm by Marise Phillips

After reading Politics and the English language by George Orwell, I envisioned joining a long line of earnest writers struck dumb, unable to write a word for days, loath to commit further crimes against the language. In high school, my English teachers distributed “the six rules” as readily as some politicians would have them post the Ten Commandments; fortunately, my incomplete but sufficient recall of these guidelines spared many a college research paper from the red ink of an irritable teaching assistant. However, reading the complete essay in 2005 frames Orwell’s six rules in a much farther-reaching social context than mere grammatical correctness, parts of which I embrace as still relevant and true, others less so.

Like our keen anticipation of a meal at a highly-rated restaurant, a writer’s renown shapes our approach to reading his work. In the case of George Orwell, the fact that I have never read 1984 has not prevented me from liberally referring to it in recent political discussions with friends. With a sense of near reverence, I was eager to discover what Orwell had to say about the failure of politicians to govern honestly and the ways in which they abuse our language to manipulate the foolish and weak-minded. Little did I suspect he would challenge every last literate one of us to hold ourselves — and, by extension, our leaders — accountable to a rigorous standard of clarity, accuracy and verity.

As I considered the opening arguments of the essay, however, my initial anticipation gave way to an unexpected twinge of skepticism. Steeped in the intolerance of intolerance characteristic to my cohort of professional, politically-progressive 30-somethings, I have long believed that my language, like my country, can only benefit from open borders. Therefore, after reading a few lines of Orwell’s controversial first paragraph:

[T]he English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse,

I prepared myself for nine pages of earnest calls for “the good old days” when, as we all know, everyone had far more impressive vocabularies, treated one another with infinitely greater respect and never allowed a profane word to pass their lips. Moreover, as I scanned down the page, I noted a distinct overuse of the word “bad,” and raised my critical defenses a notch higher.

Upon a second reading, however, I observed Orwell’s use of a particularly effective technique employed by other talented orators and logicians: anticipation of rebuttal. The statement, “[i]t follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes,” successfully re-opened my mind and rekindled my hope that what he had to say would be important. I was not disappointed, for Orwell was wise to follow this brief concession to his inevitable opponents with a liberal dose of humor: five examples of preposterous prose cited from academics, politicians and other established arbiters of intellectualism. Quotes like

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,

brought a smile to my face, soon to be replaced with embarrassment as I read on, recognizing a host of errors I make with alarming frequency, all the while thinking myself terribly clever. As a result, I found Orwell’s arguments highly skillful in leading us readers along the path to recognition and self-examination, and culminating in his forceful challenge to us all to try harder to speak and write better.

The inventory of crimes against the English language Orwell exposes within each quote is as alarmingly commonplace in our discourse today. The errors he calls “dying metaphors,” “verbal false limbs,” “pretentious diction” and “meaningless words” are described and demonstrated with damning accuracy. In particular, I felt a sense of personal condemnation after reading “in between these two classes there is a huge dump of wornout metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves,” knowing I regularly commit this offense as I send out the day’s thousandth gratuitous e-mail.

Moreover, by concluding his “catalogue of swindles and perversions” with another humorous example of the absurdity that arises from writers’ well-intentioned attempts to replace simple words with extravagant ones, Orwell makes his case with solid assurance. Moved as I was by the beauty in the passage Orwell quotes 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,” I recognized in it an understated reminder that the plainest of words can express the deepest of meanings. Soon afterward, as Orwell undeniably intended, the same passage in re-worked form rang all the more meaningless, ridiculous and familiar. As a result, I was struck with the realization that writing is a difficult skill not so much because it requires erudition but because it demands vigilance.

Not all of the essay’s arguments convinced me, however. Because I believe that the longevity and vivacity of a language is increased by allowing it to flow unfettered rather than attempting to control its course, I objected to Orwell’s cautions against the use of foreign words and phrases. His declarations on the subject call to mind certain strident French purists who guard the sanctity of their language at the cost of destroying its relevance within the international community. In addition, Orwell’s points on this matter fail to acknowledge the plain fact that English owes its very depth and breadth to its historical receptivity to foreign influence. Perhaps not all of the words we have acquired over the centuries are as effective and meaningful as the “native” English words they supplanted, but the sheer number of synonyms we have at our disposal gives us English speakers almost unmatched potential for diversity and creativity of expression. For that, I am willing to accept the bad with the good, while attempting nevertheless to take up the challenges contained in Orwell’s other, more effective arguments.

Another minor disappointment I encountered while reading the essay was the way in which its content did not immediately live up to its title. As previously discussed, I approached Orwell’s work with the expectation that it would focus more specifically on political discourse than on the far wider range of venues in which modern communication takes place. Filled with the anticipation of reading a satire on the dull dishonesty of mid-20th-century politicians, I expected to find the essay’s points all the more relevant today given the frequent linguistic missteps of our current President. Certainly, Orwell makes several interesting observations in this vein such as, “[w]hen one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases, one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy;” nevertheless, I wished he would go further than the brief disapproval of political conformity with which he concluded that particular line of thought.

As my reflections on the essay expanded over time, however, I began to realize that Orwell’s primary intention was to exhort his readers to change their own habits, rather than take the easier route of placing the blame wholesale on those in power. Thus, while I am occasionally tempted to deny my citizenship in a nation which re-elected a man who, by the most charitable accounts, is dyslexic, Orwell’s essay inspired me to think more deeply than I expected to about the variety of factors that contributed to this state of affairs. Perhaps, upon further consideration, the following is indeed true:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

If so, perhaps I should reassess my conviction that George W. Bush and his Administration are malevolent, dangerous liars motivated only by their lust for power, and attempt to reconcile it with the equally strong conviction of my neighbors in the “red states” that the President’s intentions are brave and admirable. The mistrust that currently divides us may in fact stem from our collective failure to express ourselves with enough circumspection and, consequently, to hold our leaders accountable to the same standard. I have no doubt that this will be increasingly difficult to do in an age when pre-packaged sound bytes can be broadcast electronically across the globe with nothing but a seven-second delay in which to reflect, as Orwell recommends, “Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

Using the phrase “Axis of Evil” to describe three nations of peaceful subjects saddled with the misfortune of living under totalitarian regimes (who just happen to disagree with archetypal American values) is ugly. But the fact that I employ phrases like “fucking idiot” to describe the driver who cut me off on the freeway, minutes after I semi-accidentally did the same thing to someone else, is also ugly. Not so much because it is profane but because it is unimaginative and hypocritical. Taken to another level, being uncritical of ourselves and our leaders for perpetuating the dogmatic tenets of the two-party system propels our civilization toward collapse. Whether such a fate is inevitable I do not know; however, I agree with George Orwell’s assertion that language, when constructed with care and honest reflection, can slow — and possibly reverse — the process.


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