Monday, October 24, 2016

In Search of Clear and Accurate Words

            One of the pleasures and frustrations of writing is that we have only the written word to convey our thoughts. Personal conversations do not possess that limitation. In those, a nod, a shrug, a straight look, or even a raised eyebrow can be eloquent. But in writing, the words themselves have to be right if we are to get our message across to our readers.
            George Orwell, in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," laments common problems in word usage, holding that "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." He argues further that "A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better." So in this blog I will cite a number of usages that I find falling short in clarity or lacking in some other way.
            Because Orwell also notes that "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible," I will begin by listing several of these commonplaces, along with my sometimes satirical translation of their meanings: 

"Mistakes were made." – You will never know which person made them, and that person will never be held to account.

"We take that very seriously." – We're not doing anything about it.

"They will be brought to justice" – Don't hold your breath until we begin searching for them. We have more important things to do.

"I'm sorry if anyone was offended…" – I was right, I'm not a bit sorry, and the fault lies with those who chose to be offended. (Note: A genuine apology contains the words "I was wrong.")

"I am responsible." – All right. I've said the ritual words, and that solves the problem. Now forget about it. 

            Journalism also has its clichés for avoiding precise meanings and covering up the writer's laziness. Here are a few, along with comments on their deficiencies:

"violence erupted" – Violence actually did nothing. It was done by specific persons. A real journalist will find out which persons and name both them and their acts.

"shots rang out" – Shots did nothing. Specific persons fired the shots. A real journalist will find out who and report their names. (However, this usage would be acceptable in fiction if the POV character is just arriving on the scene.)

"chaos spread" – Same problem, same solution.

            My own word to describe these and similar expressions is labelthink.

            These examples also violate Orwell's principle of never using a phrase or metaphor that one has heard before. He has a further principle of never using a long word when a short one will save the same purpose. In that manner, it has become a habitual cliché to write "escalate" to mean "increase" or "exacerbate" to mean "make worse." (If tempted to use the longer, sophisticated-sounding word, we should not rise to the exacer-bait.)

            What are the consequences of inexact or deceptive expressions like those cited above? They are serious. As Orwell summarizes them: "This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain."

To avoid anaesthetized brains, we must insist on accurate and (when possible) original expression in our writing, reading, and listening.

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