bottleneck analysis

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Monthly Archives: August 2012

Word choice

Oakland, CA

As the date of my departure from the United States approaches, I look back at some reading I did a week ago and how it crystallized my opinion on the importance of words. Of the many that our bottle-shaped brain contains, only a few words emerge in times of excitement, i.e. lack of thoughtful planning (for example when we speak or when we write a blogpost off sudden inspiration). Sometimes words go missing, sometimes they are misplaced. But what makes it through the neck of the bottle sometimes would be worth keeping under the cork.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” So let’s be sincere: I like George Orwell (pen name for Eric Arthur Blair, an Englishman who lived the earliest 47 years of the past century). So when I found his archives on the internet, I chose to read his short article ‘Politics and the English Language’ (Horizon London April 1946). With his attack vis-à-vis the twilight of the language (an expression I here use on purpose to show what he was going against,) Orwell tries to make sense of a language that is perhaps the youngest, most lively, and most influenced of all. He acknowledges the poetic appeal of Latin, Greek, or foreign words. Nonetheless, he draws a well-defined border between poetry and prose: while poetry could be the art of playing with words, worshiping or slaying them, “in prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.” He speaks to the writer, begging s/he to “let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” It’s very hard to do so in a world where all we get from the mass media is sensationalistic headlines and synomyms and acronyms have substituted (and simplified) phrases and concepts on Twitter.

Times change: true, “but if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Orwell is very wise on this point. It is politically relevant to consider what words are being put after another. Sometimes we think there’s no better way of phrasing our thoughts than with a weird roundabout of meaningless foreign-sounding buzz words. In fact, there’s almost infinite ways of phrasing what comes to mind, especially because the second it pops up is probably a yet-underdeveloped thought. Think more about it and you’re going to use more words to define it. Put it on paper and you’re going to cross out some of those words and add some others to specify what you are thinking. Then you define your audience and you choose whether to adjust to it or try to impose your way of understanding and defining your concept. It is the writer (or the speaker) who defines the standard of effectiveness. To publish a best-selling book is not a big deal once you’ve been chosen by a major editorial company, which can operate a giant advertising machine for you. To write that book well and to reach the goal of entertaining, stimulating, and educating people – which goes beyond statistics and royalties – is a much harder task, which most of the times is not reflected by the ranking of the book on the New York Times or Amazon charts.

When it comes to politics, the whole lingo of specific parties and the politically-charged semantics activate a whole sector of academia (political discourse analysis) and deviate the attention from the actual meaning of the propositions. Politicians and political writers are also conscious that the public’s ears need to be unlocked by a few keywords and they are willing to carefully review the “impact factor” of certain words in their oratorial flow in order to both attract consensus and to maintain their “branded” standard on record. Obama is not going to say “job creators” as well as Romney is not going to spell out “government intervention”, although neither of them thinks either concept is too far away from their politics. The official political discourse sometimes seems artificially constructed in order to create a rift in the way politicians refer to issues as opposed to their actual position on them.

All things considered, I agree with one of Orwell’s main points: the reason of the impoverishment of the language and the possible remedies. His analysis is far from being a defense of archaism and of pretty and well-thought styles. He thinks the goal of a writer should be to “make pretentiousness unfashionable” and gain back the meaning. Towards such purpose, he proposes a few rules that should accompany the craft of writing (and I would add: of speaking). Here are his rules, posted here as a friendly reminders, to my readers and to myself:

  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 outright barbarous.

I just wish I had a deeper knowledge of the English language to make this post sound as it should according to those rules. However, a question arises: should romance languages, (or for that matter any other language) have the same kind of goals? Who decided that prose can’t be poetic? Darn, I just circled back into the atavistic dilemma of the genuine motive behind the kidney of language… Oops! Orwell just threw up in his own grave.