RSSCategory: Language

Orwell on the crossroads of language and power

February 11, 2013 | By | Reply More

Terrific article at Salon revisiting the works of George Orwell. Here’s an excerpt:

The essay is an investigation of what Orwell called the “special connexion between politics and the debasement of language.” Using as his point of departure five short representative extracts from various contemporary political publications, Orwell decried a creeping invasion of the political vernacular by insidious waffle. Meaning and clarity, he complained, were giving way to hot air and opacity, contributing to a general impoverishment of British political culture. His polemic is censorious yet witty, offsetting a surly, jaded disaffection — the man, one feels, has seen too much — with a disarmingly brisk and easy turn of phrase. Politics and the English Language rails with suitably understated flair against pretentious diction, verbal false limbs, jargon, archaisms, meaningless words and journalistic clichés, culminating in a six-point checklist for avoiding bad prose:

Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

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

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

This was about more than just style as a thing in itself. Orwell was writing in defense not of a pedantically rigid standard English, but of honesty and sincerity in politics.

This article then challenges Orwell, who suggested that cleaning up language would clean up the problem. The argument is that we now see many simply worded official pronouncements that are meaningful. Many are vapid exercises in evasion.

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Insanity and Rights

December 16, 2012 | By | 4 Replies More
Insanity and Rights

Doubtless whatever I say, someone will find fault, take offense, withdraw into positions, place guard dogs at the gates and lookouts in the towers. We are a people enamored of the idea of violence.  We like the idea that when it gets down to the proverbial nitty gritty we can and will kick ass and take names.  Americans are tough, not to be messed with, ready to exact justice by knuckles or 9.mm. . . .

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More euphemisms for sex

November 27, 2012 | By | Reply More

I thought I had heard them all, but I hadn’t heard the euphemisms for sex from the 1800s. They include such terms as “Take a flyer” and “Lobster kettle.” I suppose people did have sex, even back in the 1800s.

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George Carlin discusses political talk

September 7, 2012 | By | Reply More

George Carlin was at his best when discussing the obfuscatory language used by politicians:

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Why 69 is obscene.

June 19, 2012 | By | Reply More
Why 69 is obscene.

According to a new report by Pew Charitable Trusts, the median length of the list of disclosures that you will be presented when you open a new checking account is 69 pages.

ƒFinancial institutions do not summarize important policies and fee information in a uniform, concise, and easy-to-understand format that allows customers to compare account terms and conditions. The median length of bank checking account disclosure statements has decreased, but is still cumbersome at 69 pages. For credit unions, the median length is 31 pages. Although shorter, credit union disclosures often do not include information that would allow a customer to compare account fees, terms, and conditions.

On a related note, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be making its complaint database public today. The Washington Post indicates the importance of this data:

Complaints are the primary way that most consumers interact with the new agency. The CFPB said it has received more than 45,000 in the year since the bureau was launched. How it handles those complaints — and how much it makes public — has been a source of tension between the agency and financial industry groups.

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Counter-attack against language pedants

March 27, 2012 | By | Reply More
Counter-attack against language pedants

I recently linked to this video on a different post (after getting corrected by the language police). I enjoyed the video so very much, I’m also linking to it here:

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language from Matthew Rogers on Vimeo.

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3 Idiots: “Aal Izz Well”

January 26, 2012 | By | Reply More

This may not be the perfect forum for a review, but the film “3 Idiots” is about education versus training, science versus engineering, fear versus hubris (and the happy medium), life and death, love and despair, laughter and tears. And it has colorful Bollywood dance numbers, too!

I rented it on a whim, as it was billed as a movie about too-smart engineering students versus the educational system. I was puzzled when it began with English subtitles during the (Indian accented) English dialog. I remembered a 1990’s PBS/BBC series on the English language, when some of the impenetrable-to-me accents of the U.K. had no subtitles, but the perfectly intelligible-to-me Cajun and Ebonic dialects did. But as the blend of Hindi and English became apparent, I saw the need.

I loved this movie. Once one gets into the esthetic swing of Bollywood productions, it makes perfect sense when serious issues become silly dance numbers, and all characters are played as borderline caricatures. One can observe the essential cultural differences between our familiar American dilute-Christian one-life-to-live and anyone-can-become-president attitude and the Indian institutionalized attitude that reincarnation is the only way to improve your lot except through extraordinary means.

Why I think this is appropriate to this forum is the take on education. The protagonist has a scientific mindset that is often at odds with engineering philosophy and even more with institutionalized education. The system of teaching to the test is questioned, as is the principle of square pegs hammered into round holes. Vocation versus avocation is central to this, and expounded toward the end.

The 3 Idiots – Official Trailer has embedding disabled, but preview is fun even without subtitles. You get the idea of how English and Hindi have merged in their culture.

I defy you to watch it and not have the songs “All izz well” and/or “Zoobi Doobi” stuck in your heads.

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No rhyme

January 22, 2012 | By | 3 Replies More
No rhyme

I had long assumed that there was no rhyme for the word “orange.” One of my daughters told me that there was no rhyme for “silver” either. That inspired us to turn to Wikipedia for a detailed list of words for which there are no rhymes. I had assumed that there were only a smattering of short English words that had no rhyme, but I was seriously wrong.

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Abolish apostrophes?

January 13, 2012 | By | 2 Replies More
Abolish apostrophes?

As I worked to write a long email on my iPhone, I found myself skipping some apostrophes because the reader certainly would understand what I was trying to communicate. This made me wonder why we users of English don’t organize and officially eliminate apostrophes in many contractions. How about writing “dont” instead of “don’t”? How about “cant” instead of “can’t” (no one will confuse it with the obscure noun or little-used noun, verb and adjective versions of “cant.” Even without an apostrophe, we would instantly know what “doesnt” and “wasnt” mean. Arguments can even be made to eliminate apostrophes in possessives (we’ve actually done that in pronoun possessives (his, her, their, its).  The apostrophe, as used in contractions, was originally implemented to warn us that something is missing.  If it’s already apparent what’s missing, though, the apostrophe (at least in many cases) seems redundant.

I checked to see whether anyone else has proposed to do away with many of our apostrophes and I found this article by Richard Nordquist, who offers many resources, including a link to the aptly named Apostrophe Protection Society.

I know that what I propose will never happen.  That is the power of path dependency.  But perhaps it is already happening unofficially, due to the way many of us are taking shortcuts on our smartphones. I know that Im not the only one who doesnt like digging out those little apostrophes and I wont be inclined to change my ways.

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