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On (the English) Language

Originally published at Quantum Matrix Scribe. Please leave any comments there.

Yesterday I attended a great lecture, from Tom Palmer, an amazing scholar on history and political philosophy, on clarity in language. The principal text we read was George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, a fantastic work that everyone should read. Orwell’s idea is that if one controls the language, one controls the public’s thought processes, a core theme of his famous novel 1984.

Orwell was by no means a libertarian; instead, he was a fan of democratic socialism, which is socialism not by gun and revolution, but by protest and ballot box (in other words, what’s slowly going on in the United States.) However, he made some really great points on how language can easily confuse and muddle the truth and thus lead to oppression and authoritarianism wrapped in the guise of liberty and democracy. He was also pretty good on getting writers to become better writers.

The core message, the core principle, is simplicity and clarity. The great thing I got out of the lecture was the history of English, namely, that we have two words for everything. Ever hear the phrase “cease and desist?” It’s really quite redundant, with the words having the same meaning. Why waste time uttering two words when you just use one? As it turns out, it comes from the Norman conquest of England, where the Norman rulers spoke French and the Anglo-Saxon peasants spoke, well, Anglo-Saxon (also known as “Old English.”) So in a court of law, they had to make sure everybody knew what was going on: “Okay, you people, cease, and you, desist.” The same thing was observed with food, which Palmer noted as an example of “class struggle” (though I think he was being sarcastic): If its on your plate, in the castle, it’s called pork or beef, but if its out in the fields in the mud, it’s called pig or cow. (You wouldn’t ask someone if they wanted to eat some cow, now, would you? Sounds weird.) It also leads to some interesting observations: while the French-derived word is more elegant, the Anglo-Saxon derived word is more powerful. Which is better?

  • The Russian journalist was defenestrated.
  • The Russian journalist was throw out a window.

I bring up this particular example because I saw the former example in an article about a Russian journalist being murdered by the Putin regime a few years ago (2007, I believe?) and I thought, “Why did they say “defenestration?” I actually thought it was kinda cool at the time, an example of better writing, but really, it isn’t. If it makes your reader stop and think about what the word means, instead of thinking about the article itself, it’s probably not a good word choice (unless your article is about words, like it is here.)

But there were still some things that threw me off. The main thing was “dying metaphors.” We had a good talk about these phrases that shouldn’t be in use anymore, because the contemporary audience doesn’t understand them, but I’m not sure. I’m 21, not especially intelligent, and I understand all of these “dying” metaphors:

  1. swan song: the last work before retiring or leaving the scene; from the myth that a swan knows when it is going to die and sings an utterly beautiful song that leaves one in thrall and then expires
  2. barking up the wrong tree: focusing on the wrong thing or take the wrong course; I think the origin is clear here
  3. throw a monkey wrench: stop something, foul up somebody’s plans or agenda; comes from a metal wrench that is thrown into wooden gears, destroying them
  4. sacred cow: something you don’t touch or mess with; I think it comes from the sacred cows of India, though I’m not entirely sure.
  5. third rail: same as the above
  6. whistling in the dark: being confident some good will come out of some mess that it obviously won’t come out of

Yes, it is true that these are sometimes misused (“He threw a monkey wrench into their sacred cow.” Poor cow) but I think, overall, the population understands all of these phrases, even the young iGeneration (to an extent.) Therefore, I don’t see using these phrases as bad or confusing language. In fact, they may be quite helpful, especially with the other dictum that Orwell offers: Be short. (Thank goodness for Twitter then, amirite?)

So am I right on this–or am I totally an outlier and off my rocker?