Fresh threat of Newspeak as General Election verbiage piles up
Simple, clear words are attractive. The obfuscatory lexicon is to be avoided at all costs. Which sentence do you prefer?
My trade is that of the corporate storyteller, helping companies and brands to find their why; to express what it is that makes them distinctive; to capture their customers’ attention. So there’s no surprise that I prefer the first sentence: five words, eight syllables, active voice, earthy. Not the second, with its ten words, 18 syllables, passive voice, cliché and Greco-Roman pretentions. And I speak as one classically trained.
I’ve been thinking a lot about language recently, and not just because it’s how I make a living. The UK General Election is less than two months away, and we’re already exposed to a daily barrage of wonk-filtered spin. Lies, half-truths and self-deluding nonsense that make Orwell’s creation of Newspeak and the Ministry of Truth seem like the products of a more innocent and honest age.
A favourite American client did me the great service last week of pointing me towards Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. If you’ve never read it, open this link now and read it in the next 20 minutes you have free. If you have any responsibility for communication in your business – and frankly, who doesn’t in our always-on, social world? – it will enrich your day, improve your current project, and help you do your job better.
Politicians’ mangled words inspired Orwell’s tirade against the decline of English just post-war: “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing”. But unlike many love letters to proper language, from Horace and Samuel Johnson onwards, it’s not a funeral dirge to some imaginary, long-lost pure form. Rather, Orwell’s purpose is to ensure that we use “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought”.
In striving for conscious competence in every sentence we craft, he encourages scrupulous writers to ask themselves six questions:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
- Could I have put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is unavoidably ugly?
Two years before the appearance of the prescient and timeless 1984, Orwell recoiled at governments’ euphemistic use of often Latinate words – “pacification”, “transfer of population”, “rectification of frontiers”, and “the elimination of unreliable elements”. Truth may be the first casualty of war, and truth needs words to deliver its message. Orwell knew this personally from his wife’s time working at the British Ministry of Information.
Rereading his memorable essay last week, I’ll admit that the classicist in me felt a bit beaten up by his loathing of words of Greek and Latin origin; he’d have hated it more if I’d called it the Greco-Roman lexicon. A couple of morsels: “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up the details”, and his urgent advice to “reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence”. This line of argument felt a bit UKIP, a bit xenophobic, a bit Academie Anglaise, if you will. But it didn’t stop me from agreeing with his purpose. Far from it. The essay prompted this blog.
As the UK General Election looms, speech writers and spin doctors would do well to revisit Orwell’s six rules for clear English.
- Never use a metaphor, a simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print (no more “hardworking families, at the end of the day”, please)
- 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.
Dave, Ed, Nigel, Nick take note – particularly that bit about being barbarous. If you and your flunkeys knew your Orwell, you’d save us from the effluent that’s already flooding every news and analysis programme. What we need is the spirit Blair – Eric Arthur, not Anthony Charles Lynton. As the writer concludes, “Political language … is designed to makes lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Doubleplusgood, George, doubleplusgood.
Sam Knowles is a data storyteller and the Founder & MD of Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations talk Human and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, speaker, and podcaster, he is the co-founder and co-host of the Small Data Forum podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council.
Sam is the author of the critically-acclaimed book Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data (Routledge, 2018, with more at www.narrativebynumbers.com). This has just been followed by a sequel, How To Be Insightful: Unlocking the Superpower that Drives Innovation (also Routledge, May 2020, and more at www.HowToBeInsightful.com).