Since this current United States presidential campaign began, trillions of words have been spoken, written, blogged….
I won’t add to the cacophony with my take on the candidates, their followers, the media, the voters and the onlookers. Instead, I’ll point to the master political wordsmith, George Orwell.
George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair, a British novelist, literary critic and essayist who was passionate about the importance of honest and clear language. He warned that misleading and vague language could be used to manipulate thought and politics. He railed against “vagueness and sheer incompetence” and criticized his contemporary political writers for preferring the abstract to the concrete. Doesn’t that ring particularly true today?
The language and ideas of Orwell’s dark, satirical novels, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) have become part of our culture. Who hasn’t heard of “Big Brother is Watching You” and “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”?
His Down and Out in Paris and London was very moving. He was fiercely anti-totalitarian, anti-Communist and anti-imperialist. He described himself as a democratic socialist.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character Winston Smith recognized that he had to live as if the “Thought Police” were tuned into his and everyone else’s every movement and sound. The Ministry of Truth developed “Newspeak,” a very limiting and restrictive language, which included “doublethink,” in which you hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time, passionately believing both. This is epitomized in the party slogans: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.
I’ll paraphrase Orwell’s six rules for writing:
1.) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you commonly see in print.
2.) Never use a long word when a short one will do.
3.) If it is possible to delete a word, always delete it.
4.) Never use the passive voice, where you can use the active.
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 outright barbarous.
In typing this list, I thought of my college editing professor, John B. Bremner, who was formidable in pounding the rules of grammar and usage into my head. I can still hear him bellowing the rules whenever I struggle to keep my writing clear and concise. In fact, he would have barked at me for using “formidable.” Couldn’t I find a shorter word? His rule was “never use a Latin-based word, when a nice, short Anglo-Saxon word would work.” As an example, I could have used “suffice,” rather than “work,” but his ghost wouldn’t let me — this time. I do think a little variety is good. (I used “cacophony” above instead of “noise.” I like the way it sounds as if something’s stuck in your craw.) I studied (very inadequately) Latin and French, so it’s too easy to incorporate (more Latin) those languages into my writing — probably badly and inappropriately!
Back to Orwell. He was a prolific writer. Some of Orwell’s everyday observations in his diary are now being made available in blog form at www.orwelldiaries.wordpress.com I’ve added Orwell’s blog to my blogroll, too. Orwell’s blog has a lot of interesting sites on his blogroll, so don’t miss it.
A link to an article in the New York Times about Orwell’s “blog” is What George Orwell Wrote, 70 Years Later to the Day A link to my post about two other essayists about contemporary life, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, is There Will Be Blog. When you jump there, you have to click on the title to get the story. I’m trying to get more use out of that post!
John B. Bremner wrote a great book on writing, “Words on Words,” which is still available. I also like the new “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty tips for Better Writing” by Mignon Fogarty. She helps me with pesky punctuation questions, among other writing problems I face.
UPDATE: George Orwell is in the news again! (Along with Evelyn Waugh.) He’s in a new book, reviewed here Two of a Kind in the New York Times.