[From the archives.]
In his short 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell describes the decline he saw in the English language.
Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly.
Dying metaphors, pretentious diction, meaningless words
He writes of “dying metaphors”, “pretentious diction”, “meaningless words” and other problems. Essentially, he says all these are not merely the result of laziness, but also cause more laziness in turn. They keep us from thinking about what we are really trying to say.
A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church.
His comparison to participation in church got me thinking. Do we do things in the kingdom of God – not just in the Sunday morning service but beyond that time as well – that have become unclear, difficult to understand, perhaps even begun to lack any significance because we have surrendered to a lazy way of expressing ourselves? In short, are we becoming “those arrogant people” Isaiah wrote about:
You will see those arrogant people no more, people whose speech is obscure, whose language is strange and incomprehensible. (Isaiah 33:19.)
Plain Spiritual Speech
I write about faith and Scripture, sin and redemption, the gospel and God’s glory. Orwell led me to examine my own thought processes in writing these articles. Happily, he offers advice – a cure of sorts.
One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use 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.
My first thought on reading that list is that rule vi is the one that makes all the others workable. My second thought is that this advice would not only help me be a better writer; it would help me be a better speaker, whether I’m leading a Bible study, teaching a class full of judges, speaking to a group of schoolchildren visiting the courthouse, or preaching a sermon.
Orwell giving out sermon tips? Whowouldathunkit?*
*And who knows what Orwell wouldathunk about that word!