Let the meaning choose the word

In 1946, George Orwell wrote of the English language: “It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

He was speaking, in the main, of political language in the immediate aftermath of World War II, though the essay in which he wrote these words, Politics and the English Language, has since come to be considered the finest manifesto ever written for the good use of language in any context.

Had he been alive today he would have been still more appalled by the language he heard, not only in politics, but also in business, culture, public service and practically anywhere else he might have turned. He would have found that more layers of ugliness had been laid down by factors as diverse as the Vietnam war, the IT revolution, and the cults of political correctness and performance measurement. He would have seen that clear, bright meaning had all but vanished under a horrible mulch of militarisms, technical jargon and anodyne abstractions.

As he implied nearly 70 years ago, the times shape the words, but the words also shape the times. No wonder, then, that our large organisations today are so dysfunctional. Their language becomes ugly and inhumane because their thoughts are all about processes and targets, but impersonal, abstract language makes it easier for them to ignore the human dimension of what they do.

Orwell would have been appalled, but perhaps not terribly surprised by what he found. Everything he wrote in that essay holds true, if not even truer, today. In fact, it reads almost point by point like a manifesto for Dark Angels – and I have no doubt that we’re hugely in debt to him for having set down so firmly the foundations of what we teach, all those years ago.

“A scrupulous writer,” Orwell wrote, “in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 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? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?” And then, with characteristic wit, Orwell offers the alternative: “But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

Listen to the radio, read a business strategy, watch a CEO’s address and you know at once what he means. One could leave the solar system on the energy expended in pursuit of meaninglessness these days. “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about,” Orwell advises. And one way to ensure that that meaning is then expressed clearly and brightly is to follow the five rules “that one can rely on when instinct fails”. They’re often quoted but I make no apology for repeating them here:

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

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

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

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

1984 may have come and gone but we still have to wage war on a different kind of newspeak. These five simple rules will arm you well.

About Jamie Jauncey

Author, writer, blogger, facilitator, musician, co-founder of Dark Angels and The Stories We Tell
This entry was posted in Business speak, Business writing, Corporate communication, Dark Angels, Jargon, Language and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Let the meaning choose the word

  1. Mark Watkins says:

    I love Orwell. Particularly for his comment: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act,” which seems to me to have particular relevance these days. As for today’s blog, the following lines are now printed on a large piece of paper which is pinned to my wall: 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 put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
    Sometimes it helps to be reminded of the basic purpose of what we do.

  2. Neil Baker says:

    If I had my virtual highlighter pen to hand – or if I had one at all – I’d underline these words: “when instinct fails.” That part of Orwell’s argument seems often overlooked (though not by you, of course!) His famous ‘rules’ are fantastic, and still the best. But as writers and readers we know instinctively that the kind of writing you describe is awful, meaningless and actively harmful. Style guides, tone of voice handbooks, clients briefs and all that can be handy, but we should trust our instincts more.

  3. Re unnecessary words, those of us who heard it will never forget the journalistic lesson regarding the fishmonger’s sign: Fresh Fish Sold Here
    Well, of course it’s Fresh.
    And of course it’s being Sold; no-one expects it to be given away.
    And of course it’s Here, otherwise the sign would be somewhere else.
    So all it really needs to say is:
    If all communications could be so economical.
    Love that you’re still waving the flag for clear and focused use of words.

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