This is from Chicken Yoghurt's blog:
On Thursday last week, I had a very rare and blissful weekday away from my desk. In the sun, I read and re-read George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language.
(You can find it easily online, but I'm not going to link to it. I say you should go and buy it in a collection of Orwell's essays - everybody should have at least some Orwell on the book shelf. If you do decide to get the essay online, don't read at your desk - print it off and go and read it in the garden with a cold beer like I did.)
After finishing it, and after suppressing a panicky and almost irresistible urge to bury Chicken Yoghurt under the patio and retire to a life of online trappism, I was pleased to find I've reached some of the same conclusions as Orwell did on the subject of the use of English and political writing, just by my own route.
For those who haven't read it, Orwell sets out how poor, lazy writing, particularly in politics - the use of tired metaphors, the garnishing of verbs with operators (make contact with, be subjected to etc.), pretentious diction and meaningless words - leads to poor, lazy thinking. In turn, poor, lazy thinking leads to poor lazy writing etc. etc. until the end of time. Modern writing, he says...
...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.
Which is the new Chicken Yoghurt strapline right there. Orwell shows withering contempt for phrases like ride roughshod over, toe the line, give rise to, with respect to, phrases that this site is riddled with. My cheeks are hot with shame. It was a relief though, to read that good writing...
...has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a "good prose style."
Hope for me yet.
Orwell's scorn for "pretentious diction" - not a sin I think I'm guilty of - is something that really gets me kicking the cat, particularly when it comes from the oh-so-superior and better-paid caste of newspaper columnists. Take Polly Toynbee and her fondness for the phrase bien pensant for instance (there are other examples). Revealing myself (yet again) as an ill-educated clot, I'll admit I have no idea what it means. And frankly, I respect neither Toynbee nor her writing enough to go and find out in order to understand the points she's making. I have enough French however to know that the first syllable of pensant is pronounced ponce.
Why use such phrases if not to boast of a superior education and flatter the egos of those readers fortunate enough to have had the same? Toynbee's columns become upper-middle class closed shops and hers are not the only ones. This isn't inverted snobbery on my part - if these writers would only resist the temptation to parade their vast intellects they'd then reach a wider audience and I (and others like me, I hope) would reach the end of the column, possibly with my views changed or at least my train of thought diverted, instead of turning the page in disgust.
But it's the awful, lip-licking euphemisms and the insulting low standards of writing and speech from politicians that I like to whine on about endlessly and it was very nice to have my prejudices confirmed by someone as eminent as Orwell. I, of course, didn't arrive at my conclusions via a perceptive analysis of the use of English but via the less worthy road of my obsession with the corrupt, febrile and rancid personalities of most politicians (don't blame me - they started it). Take one of my favourites, Peter Hain, and what he calls his "political journey" over the course of his life. What he really means by the term is that he now votes for and defends policies - like house arrest without trial, cluster-bombing civilians and the ban on peaceful protest - that 30 years ago would have driven him to blood-spitting fury.
"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible," says Orwell. "Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them."
See also collateral damage - that's dead civilians to me and you - and the favourite of low-wage conservatives like Blair, Gordon Brown and Conferation of British Industry director general, Digby Jones - flexible labour markets. Which means employers should be able to sack workers more easily, pay them lower wages, make them work longer hours and not worry so much about providing a safe working environment.
Orwell's example is the use of the word democracy:
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.
This is demonstrated when you hear Tony Blair and George Bush talk about democracy in Iraq. The flavour of democracy on sale in Iraq right now is very different from the flavour we have here in the West. Blair and Bush can point to the brave souls in downtown Baghdad risking their lives to put a piece of paper in a box but they then ignore the fact that fatwas issued by clerics, vote rigging and intimidation affected the results. Hence the south of the country is now fast becoming like Taliban-era Afghanistan, but hey! the Iraqis got democracy.
The recent Iranian election result wasn't to the liking of Jack Straw and Donald Rumsfeld and so they expressed doubts of the legitimacy of the poll. Fair enough, I happen to agree with them. But I notice they didn't dwell on the reports of voting irregularities that were circulating at the time of the election in Iraq, including stories of our allies the Kurds preventing ChaldoAssyrian Christiansfrom exercising their democratic rights.
I'd like to think that, were he alive, Orwell would have a reserved special place in his heart for Tony Blair, him being guilty of what Orwell called "a lifeless, imitative style." You only have to look at the speech Blair made to the European Parliament last week:
It is time to give ourselves a reality check. To receive the wake-up call. The people are blowing the trumpets round the city walls. Are we listening? Have we the political will to go out and meet them so that they regard our leadership as part of the solution not the problem?
Reality check, wake-up call, part of the solution not the problem. And that was just in one paragraph. Is there an upper limit for the number of cliches you can use in one paragraph? Blair is fast approaching the Parody Barrier and once he breaks it will reach escape velocity and be beyond satire.
"Of course we need a social Europe. But it must be a social Europe that works," he said. Fine, but what is a social Europe? Were there any people in the pubs across Europe that night slapping their foreheads and shouting "My God! He's right. Of course we need a social Europe!"?
(This "The people are blowing the trumpets round the city walls. Are we listening?" shtick from Blair also shows his increasing separation from reality, not being one to listen to many trumpets himself. Whether it be a million people marching against war or 78% or the electorate either voting against him or abstaining at the general election)
But then, most people with even half an ear on what comes out of Tony Blair's mouth and the mouths of any New Labour hack will know what Orwell is talking about. In his essay he mentions not once but twice, a dying metaphor that Blair is particularly fond of: "stand shoulder to shoulder with". How many times have you heard Blair say that since September 11 2001? Politics and the English Language was written in April 1946. Considering how accurately it critiques Blair-speak, it could have been written at any point since Blair's ascendancy to the Labour leadership in 1994.
Another recent example is Gordon Brown's speech that he made at the Mansion House last Wednesday. It was widely trailed (itself another euphemism – it means "the media were told what he was going to say before he said it") and shown live on the 24-hour TV news channels. I came across it by accident and, after getting past the realisation that Gordon Brown always looks like he's just got out of bed and his hair looks as if it's got an accumulation of a week's worth of Brylcreem in it, I came to the conclusion that although he was talking, he wasn't actually saying anything. "Global Britain, Global Europe"? What does that mean? And how about this:
And in a global economy that requires not just entrepreneurial traders but all round flexibility, the Britain that will succeed will be the Britain that nurtures the spirit of enterprise from our classrooms to our boardrooms, and makes the long term decisions so that as a nation we will move up the value added chain and invest in science, skills and transport and infrastructure, not least by speeding up an all to inflexible planning system to speed up investment in housing and commerce – making Britain the premier location for R and D and the world leader in skills and the creative industries.
"all round flexibility", "spirit of enterprise", "the value added chain"? I've clearly missed the bus to the future where instead of nadsat we're supposed to speak in impressive-sounding snatches that can mean almost anything. But Orwell also says:
A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.
Brown's speech was the oratorical equivalent of a Pot Noodle. I decided some other poor sod could try and digest it and headed for tastier dishes. The next day's Independent was able to sum up the Chancellor's interminable, nutrition-free message to Europe in just three words: "reform or stagnate."
And so I find, that when people talk about a phrase being "Orwellian", it is not the Newspeak and Doublethink of 1984 that they are referring to but this essay where Orwell tries to save a drowning language. Nothing much much changed since he wrote it almost 60 years ago but I find there's a personal satisfaction in listening to Orwell and trying to rescue the language oneself in some small way. There's certainly a smug thrill to be had in creating new metaphors.
If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. 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.
Orwell has his detractors on both the Left and the Right. Being a latecomer to him and his writing, I'm not yet sure why this is so but I'm hoping the biography I've just bought will tell me. I'd argue however that what he says to writers in Politics and the English Language is nigh on irrefutable.
Most of us can't afford sub-editors or proof-readers to polish our prose and buff up our banter. But imagine having George Orwell looking over your shoulder, constantly encouraging you to come up with something new and find fresh ways of expression. Wouldn't that be something?
The challenge now, for me, is to put Orwell's words where my mouth is.