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Politics and the English Language Games

September 8, 2010

What can we do to adequately inform, inspire action, or even incite fervor when overexaggeration has become the name of our language games?

George Orwell’s seminal Politics and the English Language had observed that verbiage may serve as padding and a softener of the impact of reality. By the exact same logic, though inverted, if words once considered expressive become institutionalized and streamlined, those descriptions lull us into a stupor where the words have no impact. Whether prices “soar” or “crash,” whether a “furious” politician “slams” another out of “outrage” by citing a “damning report,” or whether someone is “brilliant” or “devastated,” it is clear that political writing has lost its honed edge by cost-cutting, stylistic streamlining, and focus group testing. Correspondingly, Orwell’s first and foremost rule in Politics and the English Language was “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” In case you’ve forgotten the rest, for politically effective communication:

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The tendencies to round the edges of facts to fit the style guides make news a gruel that is more easily palatable for the democracy responsible for vigilance over those in power. The truth gets ground down to a point where there are no sharp edges or texture to make the consumer aware of what he or she is eating. As another famous student of linguistics named George once observed:

I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it just keeps getting worse. I’ll give you an example of that.

There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take anymore input. The nervous system has either [click] snapped or is about to snap.

In the first world war, that condition was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves.

That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by and the second world war came along and very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock. Shell shock! Battle fatigue.

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then of course, came the war in Vietnam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’ll bet you if we’d have still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time.

And I bet if we’d have still been calling such language propaganda, the news media might have gotten some of the attention they need.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 8, 2010 11:09 am

    One other interesting thing with the overexaggeration of language is how society has tended towards melodramatic reactions as a reflection of the stark manner in which we describe things, completing the self-fulfilling accuracy of media reporting.

    I mean, this is devastation, no?

    Rational expectations!

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