Thursday 6 August 2009

Politics and the English Language - Words Matter

“Revolutions,” said Trotsky, “are always verbose.” Well perhaps… although this comes from a man who also claimed, “if we had more time for discussion we should probably have made a great many more mistakes.”

Still, using a great many words is not same as taking care with the ones you choose and shunning those that have outworn their usefulness. The following are just a selection of the many phrases used in political conversation that are misused, employed with a considerable lack of caution or that should probably be banished altogether:

  1. Never, ever refer to Britain as “UK plc”. You will sound like a Tory accountant. Or worse still, Robert Peston.

  2. If you decide to fling around the neologism "Islamofascist" to describe the various forms of political Islam, try to remember that even the Bush administration repudiated as unhelpful this particular oversimplification. Right-wing ‘liberals’ who love bandying it around, the sort who like to quote from their adopted hero George Orwell, should also remember that Orwell said:
    “the word ‘Fascism’ has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ’something not desirable’.”
    Moreover, across the Muslim world there may well be many undesirably corrupt, authoritarian, anti-democratic dictatorships and military states whose apparent totalitarianism might appear to fit a reasonable definition of fascism. But most are allies of the US.

  3. ‘Political football’ and ‘contentious political issue’ are basically the same, although the first is American and the second is English. Neither requires an understanding of the intricacies of the off-side rule.

  4. This might seem drastic, but never agree to write for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free (CiF) on any subject that is even mildly critical of Israeli policy, expecting to trigger a serious or thoughtful discussion. The comments that follow will toss the word “anti-Semite” around with gleeful abandon and quickly run off-topic, usually within the first 10 contributions. Some of these interventions may be orchestrated by a US ‘advocacy organisation’ using a downloadable web-browser extension, although to be fair, there are plenty who seem to spend their day prowling CiF, waiting to get angry.

  5. Fellow atheists! Never lazily dismiss religion as the opium of the people, thinking this means that religion is nothing but a drug designed to numb. That’s not what Marx meant and you need to read the sentences that precede his often under-quoted statement, which says:
    “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
    The old rogue was wrong about many things, but he was right about religion – it may only provide the illusion of happiness, but it’s a reflection of a world in which 85% of the population requires religion’s ‘spiritual aroma’. You don’t change the world just by telling people they are wrong about their illusions. You might make a start by demanding a world that no longer requires them.

  6. Never use ‘not fit for purpose’ unless you see fit to explain precisely what purpose or function an organisation or policy is incapable of fulfilling. In the course of doing so, you will always find that you really don’t need to say ‘not fit for purpose’.

  7. Steer clear of "postcode lottery" if you want to avoid being mistaken for a journalist too indolent to acknowledge that decisions are often made in different ways around the country, are based on many different factors (sometimes including discrimination based on class and race) but rarely involve the drawing of lots. The opposite of a ‘postcode lottery’ is accusing governments of attempting a “one size fits all” approach, which would of course be equally terrible.

    More specifically, for differences in the delivery of healthcare, the correct expression is ‘unwarranted variation’ and it’s a complicated area of clinical research. ‘Postcode lottery’ is not.

  8. Be extremely cautious about the word "community" and its tendency to lump a wide range of differing opinions and perspectives together into one sweeping generalisation.

    Often used by ‘leaders’ who wish to speak, without authority or consultation, on someone else’s behalf, ‘Muslim community’ is particularly overused – although the Chief Inspector of Constabulary Dennis O Connor’s description of our wonderfully disorganised, leaderless G20 rabble as a “flexible and responsive protest community which is capable of advanced communication and immediate reaction to events on the ground” is undoubtedly the funniest.
I welcome other examples: there are probably many.

Orwell's elementary rules on political writing, incidently, are still helpful, although obviously I'll avoid the temptation to say that they 'stand the test of time'. Orwell said:
  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 the passive 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 barbarous.
Just don't tell me I have broken them all in the course of this post...

George Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" can be found here.

UPDATE: 2 September 2009

Johan Hari in the Independent has arrived rather late in the game, written a piece with similar criticisms of political clichés and suggested a couple of good/bad examples: 'out of context' and 'fair trade' are worth adding. There are also some classic additions offered in the comments to the article that I can't believe I overlooked: 'refute' for deny - and 'credit crunch', possibly the most misleading expression to come out of the financial disaster of the last twelve months.

1 Comment:

Jim Jepps said...

Please forgive me Orwell but;

"If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out."

Is the word always necessary? If you delete it you have the same sentence, but sharper.

Fun post though - ta.

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