Today is the birthday of British journalist, essayist, and novelist George Orwell (1903-1950). His birth name was Eric Arthur Blair, and he was born in Motihari, India, where his father was serving as an official in the British colonial government. Orwell left India to get his education in British schools, but he returned to Asia in 1922 to work with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He decided to devote himself to writing full time in 1928, and in 1933 he published his first novel Down and Out in Paris and London and adopted his pen name, George Orwell.
Orwell's best known and most widely read novels are Animal Farm and 1984. Both novels are potent warnings against big government, totalitarianism, and fascism.
In Animal Farm, a political allegory, Mr. Jones' animals take over his farm, and in events that parallel the Russian Revolution, they learn that "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of a future dystopia called Oceania. The one-party government is in a perpetual state of war and is led by the all-seeing but unseen leader called Big Brother. From the very beginning of the book, the novel's main character, a party work named Winston Smith, is doing something that is both radical and unlawful: he is questioning his government, and he is writing his thoughts in a journal.
Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 (reversing the numbers 4 and 8), but he probably should have called it 2084 since questions about big government, privacy, and the role of technology make this novel even more relevant in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.
Two words created by Orwell in 1984, doublethink and newspeak have been melded in our modern lexicon to become doublespeak, meaning language that is deliberately constructed to disguise rather than clarify meaning. William Lunz, author of the 1989 book Doublespeak, keeps Orwell's memory alive in his annual Doublespeak Awards, which call attention to language from government, business, and the military that is "grossly deceptive, evasive and euphemistic."
Orwell's use of the suffix -speak in 1984, for words such as newspeak, duckspeak, and oldspeak, popularized the use of the suffix -speak to refer to any particular variety of spoken English, such as Haigspeak, Bushspeak, or soccer-speak.
The 1946 essay Politics and the English Language is George Orwell's plea for writing that is clear, concise, and thoughtful. In a famous example, he presents the following passage from Ecclesiastes as a model of clarity:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
He then translates the passage into modern gobbledygook:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Also in Politics and the English Language, Orwell practices what he preaches when he presents the following concise list of rules for writers:
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 [voice] 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.
7. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Today's Challenge: Big Brother Is Not Eschewing Obfuscation
Below are several examples of doublespeak from William Lunz. See if you can wipe the fog off the language window and translate each phrase into its plain English equivalent:
1. genuine imitation leather
2. collateral damage
3. water landing
4. radiation enhancement devices
5. predawn vertical insertion
6. human remains pouches
7. previously thawed poultry
8. involuntarily terminated
9. immediate permanent incapacitation
10. high-velocity, multipurpose air circulators (1)
Quote of the Day: Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. Nathaniel Hawthorne Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. --Nathaniel Hawthorne
Answers: 1. fake leather 2. civilian casualties 3. airplane crash in the ocean 4. nuclear weapons
5. attack by paratroopers 6. body bags 7. frozen chicken 8. fired 9. death 10. electric fan
1 - Lunz, William. Doublespeak. New York: Random House, 1989.