We’ve been writing about language for years here at On Violence. If I, Eric C, have a bigger obsession than lying in memoirs, it’s using words properly. (The military is an easy target.) But we’ve never collected all of our language posts in one place before, so consider this an “On V Link Drop” to our language posts, finally collected in one place.
We first “got Orwellian” analyzing “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, “Contractors, Mercenaries, Private Security and Terrorists”, and “Military Intelligence and Interrogation”. We also briefly discussed “heroes” in this link drop. We might as well have called our post “What You Should(n't) Be Afraid Of” “Getting Orwellian: Existential Threat” instead. In August, we added a new addition to the series in “Getting Orwellian: Navy SEALs”.
I pointed out how writers can say more with less in my post on post-9/11 war novels, “The Humvee Flew Over The Mountain: Jargon, Lingo and Military Writing”.
Last year, going a bit weirder, we wrote about “Language Behaving Badly: Strategic Reachbacks, Service Members and Operation Nude On”, “Army Words for Regular Things” and our “Readers Nominate More "Language Behaving Badly".
This year, we got Orwellian on “The Legal Dodge: Getting Orwellian on the NSA's Most Popular Defense” and “We're All Ordinary Americans: Getting Orwellian on the NSA”.
Getting Orwellian on Orwell
We choose the title “Getting Orwellian” for our series on language because George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language” is probably the most famous essay on writing in the last century.
But if I’m being intellectually honest, too many writers and thinkers overrate this essay’s importance, and insight.
First, if you’ve read any of our guest posts on writing at Write to Done, you know that I hate rules about writing. No one rule can govern all writing. Orwell loves rules, but he doesn’t like following his own advice. From the brilliant Language Log blog:
“Orwell wrote (apparently without irony, Nunberg noted) that in the evasive kind of writing he disapproves of, "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active".
Just to clarify: in the very sentence where Orwell tells writers to not use the passive voice, he uses the passive voice. Oh, he also uses the passive voice in his opening sentence. Find other examples of Orwell breaking his own rules in this second Language Log blog post on the essay, including using long or foreign words and outdated metaphors. Geoffrey Pullum points out other inconsistencies in two articles at the Chronicle of Higher Education, including Orwell’s use of metaphors and the “not un-” rhetorical technique.
More important than the style advice is the overall message. On Violence fav, Geoffrey Nunberg, criticized the overall message in his book Talking Right:
“Objections to jargon and euphemism are well taken, but they tend to leave you with the impression that the ‘plain’ or ‘common’ words that people defend are unproblematic. Yet in political language, it’s the common words that work the most mischief, precisely because they’re the ones that people are unlikely to examine for their hidden assumptions...
...Those ‘plain words’ work on us far more deeply and unconsciously than any others, and they can persist for long periods of time without becoming frayed or yellowed they way euphemisms tend to do.”
This passage turns Orwell’s argument on its head, in the most logical way possible: average people don’t like complex words. They stop paying attention to them. So what words will politicians use and manipulate? The plain, little ones.
We use the phrase “Getting Orwellian” because it neatly sums up what we’re doing with our language posts: questioning the standard uses of language. Orwell’s essay does just that. But don’t think he had all of the answers; he didn’t.