A few nights ago, I watched episode 5 of Stephen Fry’s documentary series on English (if you’re quick you may still be able to catch it on the ABC’s iview). He was discussing his favourite English writers, and one of these was George Orwell. During an interview with the editor of the English satirical magazine ‘Private Eye’, Orwell’s famous pamphlet, ‘Politics and the English Language’ was mentioned, and I realised, to my shame, that I had never read it, and that I should probably remedy this as soon as possible.
Anyway, last night, by sheer coincidence, the subject of George Orwell came up again, this time at my monthly men’s book club (Get your own!). I was talking ‘free ebooks’ with my friend, Martin, and he mentioned the works of George Orwell as an example of books that you can get on Australian websites but not American websites – since copyright in Australia only lasts for fifty years, whereas in the States it is seventy-five.
It will come as no surprise to you, that as soon as I got home I went straight to gutenberg.net.au, to find and download ‘Politics and the English Language’. I read it today while Tilly was sleeping (it only takes 20 minutes or so), and I tell you what, for something that’s now out of copyright, it is incredibly contemporary.
Orwell suggests that a ‘mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose’. His response is to argue instead for language that is ‘an instrument for expressing thought and not for concealing or preventing it.’ This, he says, requires ‘picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make meaning clearer’, rather than ‘gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the result presentable by sheer humbug.’
Anyone who grew up going to church; who has belonged to a political party, or to an institution of any kind; or who ever listened to a speech by George W. Bush, will be familiar with this cut and paste form of speech and writing – a form that creates confusion or conformity, but never understanding.
Fear not, though, Orwell has six questions and six rules to help writers achieve clarity and competence. The six questions consist of four basic questions:
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
…and two additional questions
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
His six rules are:
1) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4) Never use a passive where you can use an active. (For those who went to school in the seventies, here is a link to the Wikipedia page on the passive)
5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
He goes on to say that ‘you could keep all these rules and still write bad English’, but that at least ‘when you make a stupid remark, its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.’
Now the observant reader will have noticed that my title for this post is ‘Parenting and the English Language’, and will be asking themselves how I’m going to pull the parenting bunny out of this Orwellian hat. Well, two connections occur to me.
The first is that, as Orwell himself points out, the use of vagueness in political language is generally to shield people from brutal and unacceptable truths, and so prevent outrage and opposition (classic examples of such language are terms like ‘collateral damage’, ‘friendly fire’ and ‘extraordinary rendition’). As parents, it is interesting to ask ourselves, when we use euphemisms and vagueness with our children, whether we are doing so to protect our children from realities they are not yet ready to confront, or are, in fact, just protecting ourselves from awkward or difficult questions, or worse still, inducting our kids into unnecessary and brutal taboos.
I reflected on this today at the park, when my daughter (now two) said to the girl in the next swing, ‘Tilly has a vagina, and papa has a penis’. I stifled the urge to shush her… but only just. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are things that can be safely said in one context but not in another, and as they grow older, we obviously want to help our children avoid public humiliation. The trick is, I guess, to make sure that the humiliation we are seeking to avoid is really theirs, and not ours; and that, in the process, we cultivate in them, wisdom and sensitivity, rather than shame.
Oh dear, I’ve spent so long on connection one, that I have completely forgotten what the second connection was….