11.14.16 | Politics and the English Language

The inspiration for our next Member Monday (11/14) discussion came from an off-hand remark by member Michael Kosacoff that journalistic writing today seems to have become flat, uninspiring and almost formulaic. Our discussion piece will be that classic 1946 George Orwell essay, “Politics and the English Language.” (attached below as Pdf file).

Read it and smile in recognition. Orwell’s central complaint about "modern" English i.e. the reinforcing cycle of sloppy thinking and deteriorating language, is perhaps even more evident today. Remember, of course, his reference to modern English is in the context of a piece he wrote at the time many of our club's elder statesmen were still youngsters.

The topic has nothing to do with Professor Eat-Your-Peas humiliating a grammar student for misusing the word ”hopefully.” Nor shall we be overly concerned about the role of simple bad habits and intellectual laziness in giving rise to the usual suspects — dying metaphors, abuse of verb construction, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. 

Rather, let us simply behold the power of language to create its own reality. That theme, of course, was the essence of Orwell’s later (by three years) dystopian novel,1984. The specter of sloppy language/sloppy thinking, more than simply the concern of the fuddy-duddy academic, may threaten the proper functioning of democracy itself. It opens the way for language to be commandeered. Examples abound.   

Perhaps it best to stay away from today’s political environment and reach back to the comfort of the recent past. We see that the consequences of compromised language can be literally (yes, literally) deadly. Just think how the phrase “collateral damage” softened the reality of (among other things) countless civilian deaths, thereby easing the national consciousness in selling our Middle East adventures. Or, take numerous examples from an earlier war (er, conflict) — “liberating” countries or “pacifying” villages. The jujitsu of manipulated language even served to water down the later confessionals e.g. the all-purpose passive voice diversion saying “mistakes were made.”

The point is language can have consequences. This is no time for "flat, uninspiring, formulaic" journalism. Perhaps we could entice a student from CU’s College of Media, Communication and Information to join us and share some thoughts.

Steve SmithComment