Orwell and the English Language

I was watching PZ’s first talk in his New Persuasive Words series and he got […]

Stampdawg / 7.21.10

I was watching PZ’s first talk in his New Persuasive Words series and he got me thinking of a tremendous essay by George Orwell called “Politics and the English Language.” They are both concerned with defaced words, language that has been drained of power and vividness and immediate connection to everyday life; that and the Bible!

Orwell writes:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a 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.

Here it is in 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.

… As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.

…Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

… 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.

[Ed. What happens if we replace the word writing above with preaching?]

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5 responses to “Orwell and the English Language”

  1. paul says:

    "… not a live human being, but some kind of dummy."
    I think that is a memorable and also devastating turn of phrase. Comes from thinking you have to watch your back all the time. "We are the hollow men."

  2. Margaret E says:

    As a writer (not a preacher!), this post really resonates with me. The Ecclesiastes passage is so beautiful and resonant, and the modern translation… hollow. (Good word, Paul.) Also, Paul's comment about "thinking you have to watch your back all the time" immediately brought to mind our political scandal du jour – the firing of Shirley Sherrod. How differently might things have been handled (by the NAACP, the Obama administration, et. al.) were we not living in an age when everybody, but everybody, must watch his back?

  3. Margaret E says:

    P.S. And, um, I realize the "hollow man" reference isn't ACTUALLY Paul's. Just for the record. (Sorry… the law made me do it!)

  4. Bror Erickson says:

    Great Post!
    Maybe it was the quote from "the preacher" that had me thinking about it the whole way through. But it seems to be rampant among preahers to all borrow the same turns of phrase and try to pass them as their own, smae with stories, analogies etc. Perhaps I'm guilty too. But added to this lifeless unimaginative approach to preaching is the thought that the sermon must needs be read lest you not get the lifeless quote just right. And it isn't necessarily from insincerety. I know many sincere men who do this sort of thing, because they think it is what they are supposed to do.

  5. Fisherman says:

    Try reading Pslam 38 in the King James Version, especially verses 5 through 11, then comparing same as foundin in a more modern translation.

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