Our language lunacy as defined by Orwell

In my last post, I quoted some examples of linguistic lunacy – commingled containers, access controller, disposable mucus recovery unit, etc – and wondered what Orwell would think.

In his Politics and the English Language essay, he offered “five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written”. Apart from their “avoidable ugliness”, he wrote, two qualities were common to all five examples.

“The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.” What was most characteristic of modern English prose, he added, was a “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence” – abstractions, hackneyed turns of phrase, phrases “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”.

He uses three categories to define the problem: dying metaphors (eg, stand shoulder to shoulder with), operators or false verbal limbs (eg, serve the purpose of), and pretentious diction (eg, phenomenon, constitute, expedite, ameliorate).

Innocent days! Is that really the worst he could come up with, back in 1946? No commingled containers and suboptimal outcomes?

Our speciality – pretentious diction

What is striking, though, is that our current linguistic disease fits mainly into his third category, pretentious diction. Yes, we have our plethora of hackneyed words and phrases (touch base, take a rain check, push the envelope) and love our false verbal limbs, but above all we specialise in pretentious diction.

Often, it’s because we’re using words to (as Orwell puts it) “dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements”. John Leo gives an example of this: the terms ‘intellectual harassment’ or ‘semantic violence’, used to describe simple criticism.

There’s no biased judgement, though, behind ‘disposable mucus recovery units’ and ‘ground-mounted confirmatory route markers’. There’s just an insane compulsion to load ordinary things with a huge weight of scientific and technological credibility.

In the Leo examples quoted in my last post, that is the common trend. Orwell’s “pretentious diction”, in its virulent modern form, is ‘pretentious scientifico-technological diction’. We might expect it in one of the more insecure disciplines such as sociology, but some of the worst sinners are people writing about English literature.

To explain it all, I expect we’d have to examine our worship of science and technology, and of course our analysis would have to be rigorously evidence-based. But that will have to be for another day, because I’ve got to go and do some domestic engineering.

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