Orwell Lives On

All learned men will remember George Orwell’s timeless essay “Politics and the English Language.” I still recall the first time I heard it, sitting in a lecture hall in Harvard almost exactly twenty years ago while a professor read parts of it aloud. It is still good writing — fresh, vivid and absolutely spot-on, seventy years after it was published. But while we remember the joy and the glory of that little piece, we must also admit that Orwell lost.

That is, his plain intent in publishing that essay was to help roll-back the use of incomprehensible, jargon-laden, double-negative, overly Latinized English diction in modern, educated contexts. But anyone who has read a modern academic paper, or attended a scholarly talk, will tell you that bad English has won. Clarity, brevity and concise expression are not at all prized — nor even much practiced — among the scholars and professors who fancy themselves the intellectual elite.

Bad writing won because it is often a feature, not a bug. Orwell understood this perfectly well. The political writing of his age was a “defense of the indefensible,” which demanded muddy expression if it was to achieve the aim of avoiding having to face the vividly brutal facts of his day — world war, totalitarianism, nuclear bombs. These days, with no world war in recent memory, bad writing serves slightly more prosaic ends in the hands of accredited and would-be intellectuals. Their theories are often some mix of obvious, oblivious, fashionable, simplistic, stupid and just plain wrong. Muddy expression makes up for these faults in so many (perverse) ways, which is why it is so popular.

If daft intellectuals wrote plainly and spoke clearly, then several bad things would happen: (1) Their theories would look less impressive to others, which would erode their prestige and social position. (2) Quite possibly, laymen off the street would be able to catch them in their foolishness and force them to give up their theories, which would be even worse. And (3), their theories would look less impressive to themselves; reading their own specialist literature would be too simple and easy, removing any sense of intense labor or that satisfied feeling of a hard day’s work which might flow from doing their jobs. To sum up: Illusions of importance; evasion of responsibility; and self-delusion — so many ego-assuaging vices can easily be accomplished through the simple use of bad English!

But back to the heart of the thing. I repeat below what is perhaps the best known passage from that entire essay. I do this because, while reading a Wikipedia article the other day, I felt a strong sharp pang of nostalgia which thrust this passage to the top of my mind.

Says Orwell:

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort.

Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Here it is in modern English:

“Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

… It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the  concrete illustrations – race, battle, bread – dissolve into the vague phrases “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing – no one capable of using phrases like “objective considerations of contemporary phenomena” – would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.

Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English.

And so I was innocently reading the Wikipedia article on steatopygia, and stumbled across the same sort of modern prose, causing me nearly reflexively to do the same sort of translation job in reverse.

Here is a line from the original:

In most populations of Homo sapiens, females are more likely than their male counterparts to accumulate adipose tissue in the buttock region.

This is so bad, it is nearly self-parody. Here is my translation back into real English:

In most races of mankind, women are more likely than men to grow fat asses.

Twenty two words versus fifteen. Forty syllables versus twenty.

Of course, the words “race,” “mankind” (to denote all humanity), “fat” and “ass” are all to some degree or another politically incorrect these days. Which, when you think about it, is no surprise: Reality has a Racist bent (and a sexist bent, and an able-ist bent, and every other damn fool thing you can think of, too). A favored means for special snowflakes to strive for a politically correct, egalitarian and non-Racist future, therefore, is to hide from reality however one can. Once again, bad English protects fragile egos from the cold, hard truth!

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