Monday, September 01, 2008

"Politics and the English Language" sucks.

Whenever someone mentions this essay, there is a seemingly mandatory appreciative silence as everyone sagely contemplates the eternal verities contained therein. I've read it for my own alleged edification, and it appears in every essay collection ever written, so I always feel obliged to teach it. The point I'm trying to make is: I've read it a whole bunch of times. And I can't hold it in any longer: it's just not a good essay.

What I take to be the central point--that vague, poorly-considered language enables oppressive political practices and régimes--is right on, and it's a vital point to be made, now as much as ever. "Enhanced interrogation," anyone? When Orwell writes that "the word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable,'" it's impossible not to think about Jonah Goldberg's train wreck of a book.

So that's all well and good. But you notice how I merely described that as "what I take to be the central point?" That's because the essay is so poorly organized, and the point is flooded with so much incredibly petty and occasionally nonsensical complaining, that it's often difficult to believe that Orwell even has a central point other than "get off my lawn, you durn kids!" His points about the genuinely harmful nature of bad language practices are so diluted by his small, unimportant points that the former are cheapened and it's often unclear what the central thrust is meant to be.

Obviously, one has to adjust for the fact that the essay was written sixty years ago, and some of his complaints may simply no longer be operative in the way that they once were, but even with that in mind, a lot of them just seem irreducibly silly--more like a litany of literary tics that annoy him than anything else. We all have such lists; we don't all try to elevate them to the level of absolute truth. People are being pretentious, you see: they're using bizarre, esoteric words like "exhibit" and "basic." They're also using dreaded foreign phrases like "status quo" and "deus ex machina!" And you know what's even worse? DO YOU??!? I'll TELL you what's worse: they're using those fancy--élitist, one might say--words with Greek and Latin roots, instead of folksy, down-home Anglo-Saxon words. You know--terrifying words like "expedite," "predict," and "clandestine." I'll bet they eat arugula, too.

That last example is especially confounding: even if a good explanation could be provided for the thoroughly bizarre injunction to avoid words with the wrong kind of etymologies, who but an especially maniacal Classics professor is going to be in any position to put this idea into practice? The English language's greatest strength is its ability to assimilate words from all over the place. It's like a big ol' katamari (serious nerd reference). But not for Orwell: "Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English," he breezily writes, and this is where he really tips his hand. Why do these three examples meet with his approval? Why can't we just say "that is," "for example," and "and so on?" Why are these somehow A-OK while "cul de sac" is deeply offensive? There's no reason for it. It's completely idiosyncratic. And that's fine, as long as you aren't trying to pretend that your personal idiosyncrasies are somehow universal truths.

There's plenty more where that came from. One of my favorites is the part where he condemns phrasal verbs. Dude: that doesn't have anything to do with linguistic degradation; it's just how the English language works. You might as well object to rules of word order or verb conjugations. If you don't like it, you could switch over to French, which does not have such abominations unto the LORD.

Of course, we can't go without mentioning his high-larious rendering of a passage from Ecclesiastes into allegedly modern prose. It's really about the most fatuous thing ever. "What if someone tried to say that 'the race is not to the swift,' in modern language? Also, they'd just suffered a severe head injury." Did he actually think he was making a valid point here? Yes, granted, the examples of modern language use he cites are pretty bad. Some people are not good writers. What a revelation. But he himself is just being silly.

Somewhere buried under all this nonsense there are some valid points, but it's not that easy to get to them. Again, the central issue is an important one. But Orwell badly misdiagnoses the problem, and his examples represent, at best, sloppy, half-valid attempt to get at the core issues. I don't want to come down TOO hard on him: as if to show that, no, he's really not that bad, this collection (as does the previous one) also includes "Shooting an Elephant," which is a really smart, perceptive essay. But the fact remains: for all that it's his most famous essay, "Politics and the English Language" bites pretty hard.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I strongly recommend John Dolan's vicious attack on Orwell. A quality polemic, it is. I always knew there was something I didn't like about the snooty old bastard.


6:09 PM  

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