Tag Archives: English

Politics And The English Language by George Orwell

22 Jan
Note to readers - hover mouse over links for word definitions.

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

– George Orwell

As one partial to a spot of sesquipedalianism, Orwell’s essay is a particularly poignant piece of prose.

I do get big fat chufties from using fancy sounding long words, but of course logorrheic loveliness adds gravitas groundlessly.

Some delightful consonantal alliteration there, don’t you think?

As there are a million wonderfully diverse words available to the English speaker, it is great to be able to choose a word, however unknown, if it really pins down the quiddity of a concept. But if your audience does not know of that delightfully descriptive term, then what use is it?

I remember learning this showy phrase at a young age:

A slight inclination of the cranium is as inadequate as a spasmodic movement of one optic to an equine quadruped utterly devoid of any visual capacity“.

Translation: a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.

As the first one sounds so well spoken, it’s easy to think ‘oo, that sounds like someone clever wrote it, therefore it must be true‘, but the presentation of a message is not necessarily an indicator of its truthfulness, a kind of argument from authority.

A good example is in the previous sentence: I wanted to say ‘veracity‘, but ‘truthfulness‘ is a word that is more easily understood – given it’s used more often – so will be more likely to help you understand the point I’m making. On the other hand, the Latin etymology of the erudite alternative does make it sound more authoritative. There are studies that prove if something is written simply, and even if the font is easier to read, then the reader is more likely to accept the points made – it’s a cognitive bias called cognitive ease.

Anyway, enough waffle. To the essay at hand. In it Orwell describes how to write terse, clear English, which clearly communicates with the reader. He decries the use of obfuscatory language, saying we should use simple concrete language, only adding more words if they add more meaning.

We should use fresh metaphors that evoke a strong image in the mind of a reader, rather than one dulled by overuse – ‘carrot and stick  is a good example.

When a metaphor is new it has a great effect as it brings a sharp image to the mind of the listener, adding weight to the case. However, once one is accustomed to the turn of phrase, it simply becomes an abstract grouping of words with a meaning attached, and loses its visual power. Interestingly many linguists argue that most if not all words were birthed in a metaphor, so its power may have increased in other ways: once it is in common use, it has a well defined meaning and can convey that meaning more efficiently.

C. S. Lewis said: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” Orwell says we should use ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’, ‘method’ rather than ‘methodology’… the list is literally endless. Sorry about that one – I had to squeeze in that pet hate. Using literally as an intensifier, or in place of its antonym figuratively, is egregious.

He opposes the use of unnecessary words. The pretentious “In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that” should be replaced with “I think“. It may make the presentation appear more grandiose, but it adds no meaning. We all know that when a politician answers a question, they do go on and on with their formulaic phrases; hearing them answer a question with a simple ‘yes‘ or ‘no‘ is quite jarring, yet I see it as refreshingly clear and honest.

Whilst discussing such things it behoves me to point out that ‘while‘ is a perfectly serviceable word. Why do people insist on using its anachronistic predecessor? Dost thou think thine utterances carry increased weight? No, they just sound asinine.

I will say that while I like well written English, I do object to a slavish following of the rules. Old Churchill puts it well: “From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put”. Orwell says “correct grammar and syntax…are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear“.

Orwell says: “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against“. Ahem. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.

Orwell ends his essay with six rules for writing good English, which are nicely summed up in this comment: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

The English: A Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman

16 Apr

The fourth in a series of posts On Being English.

Paxman’s book is well researched, and packed with interesting points and ideas – the best book I’ve read on being English.

He covers our views of foreigners, the anachronistic view of a bucolic England to which so many aspire and he rubbishes our self-effacing view that we are doomed as a nation.

He describes the traditional Englishman and Englishwoman, and although it informs us of our past, does not define our present states.

He points out that we have given a lot to the world, and continue to do so. Yet we still have a defeatist attitude, thinking that we are somehow in decline – a nod, perhaps, to our long-lived love of the underdog.

Finally, we are less a homogeneous society (class differences aside), and are now a vibrant society of individuals. And although this means ideas of a strictly defined nationhood are no longer valid, or even possible, it is a strength that will give us more than it will take away.

Tickling The English by Dara O Briain

14 Apr

The third in a series of posts On Being English.

I’m a fan of Dara, having seen him live, and enjoyed his sharp witty banter on telly. I started reading his book and for the first few chapters it seemed like he was just putting his tour diary in print. But I persevered and it turned out that Dara has some excellent insights on the English condition, backed up with lots of research so that I ended up stacked full of English trivia, such as the Balti was invented in Birmingham in 1977 by a Bangladeshi, and similarly the Tikka Masala was invented by a Bangladeshi in the UK in the 50s.

He was excellent at pointing out the stupidity of the negative view the English have of themselves. The expectation of failure of any big national project from the Dome to the NHS to the Olympics to Heathrow terminal 5, which he goes on to say is one of the best in Europe. He comprehensively shows how the Brits are around 5th in the world in areas from trade to sport. Yet that isn’t good enough for us. He rounds on the daft mentality that if we’re not at the top we’re somehow complete failures and I heartily concur with his positivity. But he says that the perennially negative bleaters cover up the fact there are many less vocal pragmatic and positive people.

He also touches on “England’s contrived nostalgia for a rural idyll”. Here here.

So an easy read, and if you read in your head with his Irish brogue, it is of course more funny…

If you want a more incisive read I’d suggest Paxman’s book on the English.

On Being English

12 Apr

Patriotism is often an arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles.
– George Jean Nathan

So I’m English. From my point of view that means I’ve been born in a certain region. Nothing much more. I’ve always thought of myself as a person, and those from other countries are simply people too.

In the past I’ve been rather bemused when people from other countries are so proud of their origins, and when they presume that things from their culture or geographical region are good, or even superior, simply by virtue of a link with their country.

This view was adjusted somewhat when I went to Cuba. To see the limits on their freedom of expression, movement and politics, and their low standard of living, I understood just how lucky I was to be born in the UK.

Lucky, but not proud, not patriotic. Patriotism is define as “Love of and devotion to one’s country”; something that seems extreme to me.

I appreciate certain things about my island, namely the people I know, and the shared culture which means I can communicate more easily with my fellow Brits.

I grew up not even knowing the difference between England, Britain and the United Kingdom. The fact that my history education at school was non-existent may have influenced my attitude. Perhaps a sense of what has gone before would have given me a better feeling for the achievements of “Great” Britain and so engendered more of this sense of belonging that those from other countries seem to have. But when I stopped to think about it, calling our island ‘great’ seemed a bit big headed to me. I’ve heard it said that the education of kids in both America and France inculcates them into thinking of their countries as superior, though I’m not sure I would support that approach.

The only place I see a real patriotism in the English is supporting the country in sport, particularly in football. But football passed me by so I never really got into that.

This jingoistic attitude just doesn’t work for me. I enjoy watching tennis and I’ve never supported a person simply because they’re from this island. I cheer on a player because I enjoy their style of play and their on-court demeanour.

This is in direct contrast to other countries. When I went to Croatia their national pride was palpable. Perhaps because they’ve been through a recent struggle for independence they are more protective of their national identity. I’ve seen it argued that since the English have a recent history of world domination, both through the days of the Empire, and due to being key in winning two world wars, we have no need for such pride. Interestingly the prevailing attitude of Germans seems to be similar, but perhaps for slightly different reasons.

So, as a result of noticing this disparity, I’ve been doing a bit of reading around what it is to be English, and I’ll be posting some book reviews over the next few days.

Here are the reviews:

The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg (1/5)

Tickling The English by Dara O Briain (2/5)

The English: A Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman (4/5)


The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg

29 Mar

With so much negativity about being English around these days, it’s nice to read a book like this.

Bragg’s basic tenet is that as a people we’ve been getting more egalitarian and that’s why we should be proud.

I didn’t realise how autobiographical the book was, and I found that a bit tiresome as I’m not a groupy, rather I’m interested in his take on what it is to be English. The important bits could have been compacted into a long essay and would have had the same effect on me.

However, some of the history is interesting and backs up his main point.

Worth a read if nationality is something of interest.

See this post for more reviews of books on being english.

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