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.