On the not Unvague Modern Lexicographical Modality of Communication
In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay on the pitfalls of English prose, describing what he considered to be the common mistakes made in modern writing. Politics and the English Language identified dead metaphors, over-used phrases, and vague diction as habits to be eliminated from writing, for they tire the reader, confuse the meaning, and destroy the specifics of one's intended message. Whether purposeful or accidental, such errors have not yet been eliminated from the English language: 60 years later we still make the same mistakes, albeit in slightly different forms. While most writers keep their prose admirably clear of such obstructions, passive, vacuous, and needlessly complex sentences cloak the modern world of bureaucracy and politics in a haze of pretentiously irrelevant verbosity.
Take the first of Orwell's charges: the dying metaphor. Some of his examples of have now faded from use, like "ring the charges on" or "take up the cudgels for." After all, few people fight with cudgels nowadays. However, some of these phrases remain in circulation. "Toe the line" has become embedded in our vocabulary to the extent that it fails to arouse any trace of visual imagery. One has only to examine any political statement to encounter these tired phrases being trotted out once again for display. We speak of "cutting off ties" with other nations, or refer to America as "a shining beacon" of democracy, and no one thinks anew. The problem of dying metaphors hasn't gone away, but merely shifted to a new collection of unimaginative analogies.
Similarly, the reliance on verbal false limbs and the passive voice has not diminished with time: these appear with frequency in political, bureaucratic, and scientific writing. Compounding simple verbs and nouns produces the illusion of objectivity and sophistication while obscuring the real facts, as this excerpt from the FBI's about web page demonstrates:
Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, one week into his term, [Director Mueller] became responsible for spearheading what is perhaps the most extensive reorganization the FBI has experienced since its conception.
Note the cumbersome use of "became responsible for spearheading" in place of "spearheaded". This operator takes the most general verb in the English language—to be—and attaches a collection of loose adjectives and verbs which confuse the reader. Also observe the semantically vague qualifier "what is perhaps the most", and the tacked-on phrase "since its conception." These false verbal limbs do little to clarify the meaning of the sentence, but are included either out of habit or a desire to appear intimidatingly well-educated.
Likewise, the habit of euphemism has infiltrated the language of our legislation and corporate policy to great extent, replacing unpalatable words with vacuous terms bearing little relation to the original. "Downsized" is a beautiful example: a verb constructed from a noun and adjective to replace "fired". Of course, English speakers are remarkably adaptable creatures, and the phrase "downsized" now elicits a twinge of fear throughout the corporate world. To compensate, even more bizarre phrases have been coined: employees can be "repurposed" or "released", and the march of progress clamors on. Sometimes, euphemisms can completely reverse the meaning of a term—as in the case of the "Clear Skies" act, a bill which allowed for higher levels of atmospheric and water pollution. Surely our capacity for euphemism has not diminished in the years since Politics and the English Language.
At first glance, Orwell's charge that politically charged words are 'meaningless' seems diminished in our time. After all, communism no longer threatens the United States as it did in the 1930s. The terms 'fascism', 'realistic', and 'socialism' have lost their visceral connotations, and we use them with relative objectivity. However, the distortion of words within political speech remains a common practice. When asked about the United State's policy of rendition-—capturing individuals suspected of terrorism, flying them to countries known to torture prisoners, and holding them for months without due process of law--National Security adviser Stephen Hadley responded:
I think the President has been pretty clear on that, that while we have to do what we -- do what is necessary to defend the country against terrorists attacks and to win the war on terror, the President has been very clear that we're going to do that in a way that is consistent with our values.
Note the immediate interjection of "what is necessary to defend the country against terrorist attacks" and "to win the war on terror." These phrases do not address in any way the term or process of rendition. "Defense against terrorism" has become a blanket phrase in our political lexicon, used to justify anything from war to wiretaps to airplane screening lists. "Consistent with our values"? If freedom is an American value, is imprisonment consistent with freedom? Fuzzy terms like "freedom" and "values" provide no concrete information, but make us feel somehow better about the subject. These are precisely the sort of meaningless words that Orwell spoke out against.
One look at any press release, office memorandum, or political address will reveal that Orwell's assertions about the English of 1946—-far from being obsolete—-are eerily applicable to our writing today. We consistently confuse, mislead, and distract our readers with dying metaphors and malformed operators, euphemisms, and meaningless words. While all of us should heed Orwell's advice on writing clear and meaningful prose, few will. It remains our task as informed readers to identify and compensate for the habits of obfuscation in the bureaucratic style.