Language lunacy – what would Orwell think?

The English language today – or why George Orwell would need his mucus recovery unit if he had not experienced a suboptimal outcome


George Orwell’s essay, ‘Politics and the English Language‘, begins: “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way …”

He wrote that in 1946. If language was “in a bad way” then, what way is it now in? According to John Leo, a writer and contributing editor at The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, it’s in a “much worse” way.

In a recent article, ‘On Good Writing‘, adapted from a speech he gave at Ursino College in Pennsylvania, he refers to Orwell’s essay and comments: “Orwell offered five examples of sub-literate prose by known writers. But these examples don’t look as ghastly to us as they did to Orwell, because language is so much worse today.”

To back up his claim, he offers some examples and his translations:

commingled containers – (the label on a bin at Leo’s local recycling centre) otherwise known as ‘cans and bottles’

suboptimal outcome – if ‘achieved’ by students, it means that they failed, Leo writes; in a hospital, it means that the patient died.

hull loss – sometimes used by the airline industry, meaning ‘a plane crashed’.

access controller – a doorman

director of first impressions – a receptionist

thermal therapy unit – a hospital term meaning an ice bag

disposable mucus recovery unit – also a hospital term, which, as you’d expect, refers to a miracle of modern technology: a box of paper hankies.

ground-mounted confirmatory route markers – (found in a US government document) yes, you got it: road signs

non-traditional students – older students

Leo also tells of city officials in Oxford, England who decided to “examine the feasibility of creating a structure in Hinksey Park from indigenous vegetation”. They were, he says, “talking about planting a tree to get some shade”. He offers his own version: “a solar-shielding park structure from low-rise indigenous vegetative material”.

All this reminds me of what an English woman, who had just moved to Calgary in Canada, told me years ago: when she was asked for her occupation at a bank, she said “Housewife”, and the bank official wrote down “Domestic engineer”.

In comparison with these horrors, the examples that Orwell gave are mild. If the state of English in 1946 distressed him, he’d have a fit if he could see how pathologically it has declined.

What’s the reason for all this linguistic lunacy? See my next post.

Posted in Editing, Jargon, Language, Words Tagged with: , , , , ,
4 comments on “Language lunacy – what would Orwell think?
  1. Andrew says:

    A friend of mine is being introduced to his new job today by an “onboard focal”. The term seems to be so new that a quick check on Google doesn’t give any results…

  2. admin says:

    ‘Onboard focal’ seems to be a phrase used in aerospace. Used for introducing someone to a new job, it’s another example of Orwell’s “pretentious diction”!

  3. a friend says:

    “onboarding focal”… I think what is worst is using focal as a noun.

    … and now I have a badge I am able, nay, required, to “badge-in” each time I enter a building. My Polish colleague was somewhat relieved to know that the local dialect of English was not standard.

    Once upon a time, in a convent far, far away (perhaps in the sunny south-east), there was a period when mentally handicapped pupils were called “sub-normal”.

    Time to onboard my bed…

  4. admin says:

    Just be happy that your onboard-focal welcoming party didn’t subject you to a waterboarding peripheral …

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