by Martin de Beer for The Saker Blog
I do hope that this title sounds familiar to many readers because, in this essay, I pay tribute to a brilliant author, George Orwell. His novels, Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm, have developed cult status, which is no wonder due to their prophetic content. They predict equality as a relative concept, explaining that some can be more equal than others, as well as the situation where constant and complete surveillance, by the powers that be, leads to the enslavement of those believing themselves to be free!
In this piece I shall not be discussing his novels but an essay that he wrote in 1946 titled Politics and the English Language. (First Published: Horizon, GB, London, April 1946) I have taken the liberty of underlining certain portions to highlight their importance to his and my reasoning.
His title is rather bland, possibly because he was writing on an emerging phenomenon and due to his mistaken belief that sufficient talent and will existed to check or even correct it. If I am right, Mr. Orwell wished to issue an unambiguous warning which did not require any measure of ferocity in its title, at the time of writing.
Seventy years later, with the benefit of hindsight, I submit that more ferocity was required. This contention is based on the obvious fact that the restricted threats he perceived have grown to be universal practice! I believe the collapse of language, from tawdry and vague to vulgar and meaningless, requires contemporary writers, and anyone using language for that matter, to reconsider Orwell’s essay and their personal attitudes towards language.
This vulgarity does not refer to foul language or swearing, but a disgusting abuse of words and phrases. I doubt that this collapse is limited to the English language. I believe that the entire field of communication is completely infested, regardless of tongue or medium used. Therefor I venture to selectively reconsider Orwell’s essay in this piece, dropping the reference to the English Language in the heading and replacing it with Vulgar Language.
The Object of Communication
According to Orwell the object of writing and communication in general is simply to make one’s meaning clear.
“On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear,…”
Orwell goes so far as to declare correct grammar and syntax of lesser importance to being correctly understood!
Words like specialization and professionalization sound very noble, enticing people to follow styles and use words in the way that members of specialist and professional groups tend to. But gilding is no more than covering some common material with gold, but the base material remains common and might be downright ugly?
People, quite capable of making their meaning clear by using common words, are drawn into this group psychosis of vulgarity, disguised as eloquence and sophistication. Unfortunately the average reader is not only misled by this gilding, but drawn into this vortex of vulgarity, and enticed to convert and follow its dogma.
How often I encounter a title and, like a hungry child standing in row for a morsel to eat in a migrant processing camp, I am filled with anticipation, the expectancy of being fed concrete substance that I might live and grow. But alas I am fed nothing! Like a hologram, there is no concrete substance just abstract nothingness and all I have left for my effort is disappointment and frustration at having wasted my time.
The Conundrum of Politics and Language
Orwell makes a compelling case for the correct use of language in promoting politics and thought. We generally seem to show absolutely no appreciation for the influence the these concepts have on each other.
“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. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship. But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”
Today, general dictatorship in language is commonplace and not limited to any country. Any honest reference to gender is close to being prohibited and once common words, with explicit meaning, have been distorted to have no meaning at all. Such words have reached a level of vulgarity and their usefulness is obviously so outworn, that they should be scrapped immediately.
I doubt that anyone, gilded or not, can honestly argue that thought corrupts language and that language also corrupts thought. With endless examples of such reciprocal contamination in our faces, every day, only a complete fool would consider contesting this truth?
The Vulgarity of Tawdry Phrases
Not only did Orwell’s peers ignore his warning but their successors promoted the rubbish he protested into feigned eloquence, so revered, that it is awarded scholarly recognition as phraseology!
It is not the use of phrases to which Orwell objects. On the contrary he encourages the use of phrases, especially new and original ones.
“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. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say “In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that” than to say “I think”. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like “a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind” or “a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent” will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”
According to Orwell, one reason for using phraseology is to hide an impaired vocabulary. The other is to avoid mental effort and its use is consequently an unambiguous admission of laziness. The result is communication, so vague in meaning, that even its author or orator might not grasp it! Insufficient vocabulary and even laziness I can live with, but when this tawdry phrase stitching is used to mislead or to conceal dishonesty and blatant lies, I find it reprehensible.
“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. 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’.”
This observation by Mr. Orwell is completely obvious in most mainstream media articles as these are addicted to the “party line”, like the youth to social media. This vulgarity might be the result of linguistic dictatorship, an impaired vocabulary, plain laziness, dishonesty or all four combined. Regardless of the cause it is mostly rubbish and too often, not even sensibly gilded.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense 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.”
Mr. Orwell mentions several incidents in his time which are indefensible, when using common words, and consequently demand euphemism, question-begging and vagueness, supposedly to make the indefensible defensible. This would be sheer folly to any audience, accustomed to the correct use and presentation of language, but due to constant gilding, few people are adept at seeing the ugly rubbish which hides beneath the shiny surface?
It is comforting to see some silly phrases being discarded, but hardly satisfying, for just like the HIV virus mutating to avoid the effect of antiretroviral drugs, one disappears and several others appear.
Take the phrase the military option remains on the table. Linguistically this phrase is stupendously vague: which table? It could refer to the president’s dining room table, some conference table where it is to be used as a negotiating tool, some other conference table to discuss with allies for approval, some table in the military where it is being refined and evaluated, etc. The phrase seems to betray its own vagueness to the point of contradiction – being available but not a plausible solution? Linguistically, if it were a foregone conclusion awaiting execution, the phrase should read the military option remains on the desk (of the person having the necessary executive authority to initiate it)?
To the person in the rubbish vortex it is sublime, telling the opposite party in no uncertain terms that they ought to be careful or else!
But not everyone is caught in that vortex. The rebels, to whom Mr. Orwell refers, are not and due to most conflict arising from the refusal of independent, sovereign states to submit to western hegemony, these targeted states consist of rebels who also are exempt from this vortex affect.
To the rebels’ thinking, a more honest presentation would be for the phrase to read we still want to attack. A completely honest presentation would read we still want to attack but are afraid to do so.
This explains why countries like Iran, North Korea, Russia and China simply ignore this jargon because it is rubbish, regardless whether one chooses to weigh it linguistically or rationally. This sort of nonsense is presented for the benefit of fools caught in the rubbish vortex and nobody else. Even before publication the authors and orators intend to spew toxic waste that the rebels won’t swallow but their supporters, whom they obviously and correctly take for fools, will, just like the opioids that they’ve been addicted to.
Social justice is another vulgar phrase, insisting on wide ranging rights for a section of society, whilst demanding that the rest of society subdue or relinquish theirs. This phrase should read sectional justice, if its proponents were to be honest and rid themselves of linguistic vulgarity, or its proponents should change their ideology to accommodate justice for the whole of society to rightly use it in its existing form.
Political and social correctness sound commendable but insist on restricting free speech and conscience to obtain the space needed to advance ideas and practices which are often unacceptable to others. As such, neither can ever include correctness in their presentation and should be rephrased as political and social suppression as they require someone suppressing their views to satisfy someone else.
Free speech is a completely worthless phrase as its current and distorted meaning explicitly prescribes speaking only that which is deemed permissible. Speech may not offend proponents or supporters of social justice, political or social correctness, religions ranging from atheism to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, etc. The scope of limitations is so wide that the mere presence of freedom in this phrase is completely derogatory to the word and its original meaning! This phrase has become so vulgar that it should be discarded immediately and replaced with prescribed speech. Acceptable speech won’t work either as it would be vulgar too, acceptability being determined by the people issuing the prescriptions and consequently not universally acceptable.
One might argue that these words cannot be scrapped as they still bear correct meaning, in some circles. I concede that this is true, but we need to reckon the damage they do whilst they exist and are allowed to be abused? In some circles, nuclear processes are viewed as necessary for producing huge amounts of electricity and potent weapons, which usefulness is completely true, but does any advantage make nuclear technology any less dangerous?
I doubt this essay will attract any positive response or interest from the prisoners of the vortex and citing any further examples for the rebels would be a waste as they are quite capable of creating their own comprehensive lists.
The Vulgarity of Words
“The word “Fascism” has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words “democracy”, “socialism”, “freedom”, “patriotic”, “realistic”, “justice” have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.”
Over seventy years ago George Orwell noted the existence of this vulgar practice and I dare say that it has worsened exponentially since then.
Take Mr. Trump being called a fascist for example. Mr. Orwell notes this deviation in 1946 already that “Fascism” has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. Like him or hate him, in vulgar English he might be a fascist to some. But if he were a fascist, in correct, appropriate English, then “the Squad” would already have been deported to their ancestral countries of origin, Hillary Clinton, John Brennon, James Clapper, James Comey, Robert Mueller and half the Democrat caucus would be languishing in some penal colony or have been executed, with or without a fake trial. That is fascism in correct English and Mr. Trump might still get there, but he isn’t there yet.
The abuse of the word democracy was already clear to Mr. Orwell in 1946 and its further decay has resulted in such vulgarity as to warrant its immediate expulsion from our vocabulary and language. I could spend hours listing and discussing the many forms in which democracy presents itself and argue which form would be acceptable to me and which not. But this would be unnecessary as the term is obviously useless in its relativity: to a critic a regime is not a democracy but to a proponent of that regime, it is, regardless of reality.
“In the case of a word like “democracy”, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
Like the word Christian, I honestly doubt that democracy can be rescued.
Racism is yet another word that has perverted to the extent that it appears to have become exclusive: it seems only people of color can be victims and only whites can be guilty of racism. This is a most vulgar perversion and obviously racist in its very application, showing the proponents of this abuse to be unambiguously and unashamedly racist themselves. This contention is proven by the fact that the word is reserved exclusively for the advantage of one group, whilst the other is entirely excluded from its protection and exclusively subjected to its accusatory potential, and that on the basis of – race. This obviously equates to racism and in denying this rational logic you subsequently admit to hypocrisy as well!
The abuse of the word anti-Semitism is similar. The word is a combination of anti and Semite and should correctly refer to prejudice toward Semites. According to the Biblical account, and assuming equal multiplication, Semites should represent roughly one third of the global population, in excess of two billion people. But the word is restricted and used exclusively to refer to actual or perceived prejudice towards Jews, at most a mere fraction of the amount of people which the word should correctly refer to, especially when taking cognizance of the fact that not all Jews will be Semites?
Due to connection with the Holocaust, slave trade, slavery, past and present discrimination, both of these words are rightly viewed as describing something absolutely reprehensible. But like the presentation of many words, if it is inaccurate and the usual object of using these and similar words is unfair and vulgar, then we are breaking down their extremely important function in correct and pure language!
Negative but valid comment and criticism of a personal kind, expressed towards a specific person and not any group to which they might belong, is answered by an accusation of being racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, fascist or by whatever other accusatory word that is available, regardless of the word’s validity or applicability.
This is clearly an abuse of language. Because of their inappropriate use, such words are relegated from concrete and meaningful to abstract and meaningless. The result of this relegation often leads to an increase of the negative they were meant to prevent! Their newfound generality strips them of their specific and intended impact, like the boy who cried wolf once too often in the children’s tale?
If the word racist is used by one group exclusively and to avoid any and all criticism, the critic has a choice: not to criticize or to criticize and be branded a racist. But with such branding being made quite common, the risk to repute is minimal as most of the critic’s peers will probably be branded similarly, just as easily and unfairly?
So, instead of this branding resulting in isolation and correction, it might actually bring about increased esteem and perversion for the person branded – in their personal capacity and amongst their peers! With most everyone in the critic’s social group, rightly or wrongly, having been branded racist, it would be unfashionable not to be branded such? The end result is obviously absurd – providing the exact opposite result of what the word was meant to achieve?
Its impact is increasingly dissolved, like a soluble pill in water. The longer and the more often the word is submersed in abuse, the further and quicker it dissolves.
We know that such a word has become completely meaningless when laws are needed to prescribe the rejection of an act that the word protests. Where the mere word previously provided sufficient deterrence to prevent the act, its regression to meaningless now requires law to prevent the act!
Due to my reference to racism and anti-Semitism this essay will probably attract negative response from the prisoners of the vortex. This would be sad as it attempts to provide support and advice in strengthening the efficacy of words dearly needed, but which their proponents seem intent on diluting by way of abuse? But a negative response would obviously prove my, and Mr. Orwell’s, contention completely – I told you so?
I do not share Mr. Orwell’s criticism on the use of words of foreign origin. Over the last seventy years many of these words have become so commonly used that every person using the English language as primary language, will know their meaning. The question should always be whether the words I choose fall within my audience’s capacity to understand them and whether they correctly portray my mental image, what I need and want to say?
Consequently I completely agree with him that words should be chosen to transform my abstract thoughts to concrete presentation. To get this right, the mental image should dictate the words and inaccurate word choice never be allowed to distort the real image or intention.
As before, I submit that citing any further examples for the rebels would be a waste.
Unlike the situation in 1946 this vulgarity has gone from restricted presentation to universal practice:
“This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page.”
Mr. Orwell contended that the process is reversible in 1946 but I honestly don’t share his optimism in 2019. What I do find comforting is the contemporary fact that there is an increasing departure from specialization to generalization, which shift, might bring some relief. Despite my pessimism I do believe that every rebel bears a duty to strive to reverse this vulgarity by any measure they can. But it won’t be easy.
“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. 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. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
Both the concepts of specialization and professionalization are still revered by society, and both strive to achieve the exact opposite result of my discourse.
“The transformation into a profession brings about many subtle changes to a field of inquiry, but one more readily identifiable component of professionalization is the increasing irrelevance of “the book” to the field: “research communiqués will begin to change in ways […] whose modern end products are obvious to all and oppressive to many. No longer will [a member’s] researches usually be embodied in books addressed […] to anyone who might be interested in the subject matter of the field. Instead they will usually appear as brief articles addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only one able to read the papers addressed to them.”
(Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The University of Chicago Press (1962), pp. 19–20 as cited in Wikipedia in an article titled Contemporary philosophy, heading Professionalization, subheading Process)
The contemporary intellectual priesthood blatantly declares that it has no desire to address and develop people interested in their fields, but to create an exclusive intellectual brotherhood with a secret language! This very quote proves Orwell’s point as its essence can be presented in a single sentence, when the presumptuous nonsense is removed. On reading these communiqués, as this word already suggests, these are concrete examples of the tawdry phrases and vulgar language that Orwell is protesting! These papers are not difficult to grasp due to technical content but are mostly completely nonsensical due to their tawdry and vulgar presentation!
“I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were “explore every avenue” and “leave no stone unturned”, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the “not un- formation” out of existence(3), to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable.
Despite Mr. Orwell’s 1946 celebration of the disappearance of explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned they have returned like the insistent Ebola virus.
With rubbish elevated to religion and its priests enjoying reverence, thanks to the common vulgarity of language, it would seem that the rebels will need to motivate and carry the rebels, if they are to free people from the vortex of nonsense that holds them captive.
“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some “jackboot”, “Achilles’ heel”, “hotbed”, “melting pot”, “acid test”, “veritable inferno”, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.”
This quote is frightfully applicable to mainstream writing and deserves consideration and application if we seriously wish to expel this vulgarity, which has not only contaminated our language, but our thinking and subsequent actions too.
Mr. Orwell’s essay is much more comprehensive than this presentation of mine, which only extracts snippets that I view as highly relevant to contemporary language, and to which I have inserted some current examples and comment. But I do have a suggestion on how we can actively halt and possibly reverse this decay.
It is exhilarating, on getting an idea or having some conviction, to dive into the tempestuous sea of language and start writing. I agree with Mr. Orwell that the overriding goal of any writing should simply be to accurately describe the mental image in your head, rather than to display any presumptuous eloquence.
As we have seen, language, and especially political language, is in chaos and any writer interested in undoing this situation should accept that their writing has a dual purpose: firstly to express their mental image and secondly to educate or redirect their audience as to the correct and appropriate use of language.
To reject this dual approach is to acknowledge that one is writing, merely for the sake of writing, with no intention of having any constructive influence on one’s audience? And if we are writing, merely for the sake of writing, our presentation might even be fraught with factual misconceptions and mistakes. To accept this challenge requires consciously weighing one’s words and to separate the meaningless from the meaningful.
Unfortunately, until we discard them, restore or provide them with meaning, we shall always have to use meaningless words, like democracy. But knowing them to be so and not providing a definition, applicable to our discourse and interpretation of the word, is beyond excuse. If we are serious about improving society through our work, using language, we cannot simply assume that people understand meaningless words, in the way that we do, or in the way that we intend them to be understood?
Maybe this misplaced assumption contributes to our writing making little to no difference to societal issues – we miss our audience completely due to ambiguities contained in our words, which we ourselves might fail to appreciate and remove? We might not be the cause but I wager that we need to educate and re-educated our readers linguistically, whilst conveying our message? In this way someone reading our work and caught in the vortex might just be able to spin themselves out of it?
If you use democracy give me a brief description of what it means, or rather, what it means according to you.
I hope that this essay will motivate those interested in this job, of reversing this decay, to take notice of or refresh their memory as to Orwell’s sensible observations, criticisms and remedial suggestions.
If we are to reverse obvious societal decay, we need to start with language, specifically our own linguistic habits.
Martin de Beer is a generalist with over thirty years’ experience ranging from policing, through legal practice and general management to marketing and sales. He is the author of three books available from Amazon Kindle Publishing: The Four Pillars of Communication; Getting to Grips with Digitization, Digital Marketing and Influencers; and Multipotentiality – Foundation for Genius or Millennial Curse?