Things we say today

By David Bardallis
web posted September 20, 1999

"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it."
-- George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946

George Orwell was an avowed socialist, but however backward his economic views he nonetheless seems to have evinced a much keener understanding of politics, language, and human nature than do most of his modern ideological descendants. In 1946, he penned a particularly insightful essay entitled "Politics and the English Language" in which he decried the lack of clarity in writing, and more specifically in writing about politics.

"In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing," Orwell wrote. Doubtless he was correct. Fifty-some years later it is difficult to say that the quality of our commentary has improved any. In fact, there is every reason to believe it has worsened. From the vacuous (liberal, conservative) to the subtly insulting (wealth redistribution, reverse discrimination), everywhere the hapless reader turns, he finds that words and phrases are no longer used to communicate, but to obfuscate or mislead.

Orwell especially derided ready-made phrases and metaphors used, he said, in place of actual thought. He cited as examples things that we would consider innocuous today, such as leave no stone unturned and stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

But the currency of cant is such that "bad language drives out the good," and if there were such a thing as a "consumer speech index" to measure the inflation of language, I am certain we would find that our mother tongue has been experiencing bracket creep for a long time.

Let's look at just a few modern examples of ready-made phrases that are typically strung together like urinals and windowpanes at a Dada exhibit and presented as original, or at least profound, thoughts:

A hand up not a hand out. This phrase is used by many "conservatives" who, sensing that a few trillion dollars in income transfers over the past 30 years have failed to eradicate poverty, nevertheless wish to express their compassion by refusing to confront the obvious truth that government "welfare" programs are bankrupt, both morally and financially.

Broad bipartisan support. The ultimate test of the worthiness of any particular idea or piece of legislation seems to be if it has broad bipartisan support. Conventional wisdom holds, for example, that if only Democrats support something then it must benefit poor people at the expense of rich people. If only Republicans are pushing a proposal then it must benefit rich people at the expense of poor people. The only acceptable alternative then is to favor nobody at the expense of everybody; the proof of this fine intention being broad bipartisan support. There is no real thought given to law apart from the calculus of slaves and masters because that would upset the carefully developed idea of "democracy," where all legislation must produce winners and losers. Fortunately, America's two major parties do not represent the totality of political philosophy: Some of us still remember the main purpose of government is simply to protect our liberty.

Gap between the rich and the poor. A number of professional handwringers constantly warn us that the "gap between the rich and the poor is widening." Just what this dire measurement means we are never told. The mere existence of income differential, whatever its size, seems to be some sort of problem requiring a governmental corrective. Presumably if everyone were poor then we would live in a better society, for there would no longer be any "gap." (We won't discuss how everyone is to be made poor.)

Give something back to the community. It used to be widely understood that everyone benefited from commerce, that no trade would occur if both parties to each transaction did not gain from it. The common notion that businesses must therefore give something back to the community implies that they have taken something from their neighborhoods in the first place. Even if no businesses ever donated time or money to any community causes or events (as many do), their communities would still be better off for their presence. Providing a desired good or service to people who will voluntarily pay for it is a positive. Can the same be said about government that forcibly extracts 40 percent or more of its citizens' income at all levels and "gives back" mostly grief?

Putting politics aside. Frequently politicians and commentators ask that we put politics aside in order to resolve some particular public issue, as if politics weren't the mechanism by which problem-solving ideas are debated and implemented. In a more intellectually honest age, this would be obvious. Instead what often happens is one "side" just gets tired of being asked to explain its position in too much detail and instead insists that "politics should be put aside." Translated into clear English, we have, "Quit arguing and agree with me."

Sparked a nationwide debate. Any proposition, no matter how obvious or trivial, can be made to appear as controversial or important if enough pundits insist that it has sparked a nationwide debate. When professional journalists, talk show hosts, and political hacks focus their attention on something like, say, sport utility vehicles, then expect a nationwide debate to soon thereafter be sparked, regardless of whether the subject or issue in question requires public debate or not. Closely related is the firestorm of controversy, which is not "sparked" but rather "touched off." Both the debate and the firestorm encapsulate the relatively new phenomenon of "reporters reporting on the reporting," which is a subject requiring its own essay.

There are countless other examples of inflated political language; the above were chosen at random and are hardly meant to be exhaustive. What they all share in common is not only a basic meaninglessness, but an appalling prevalence. Take just a moment to contemplate how easily we slip into this kind of jargon in our everyday communiques and you will see what I mean.

But Orwell concluded that it was possible -- though admittedly difficult -- to expunge nonsensical words and phrases from our discourse if we but took the time to consciously choose the words we use to communicate the ideas we want, rather than letting ready-made jargon choose our ideas for us. However, it takes real effort to think and communicate, and that is a burden few politicians and political observers today are willing to take on. In the age of the short attention span, the path of least resistance is most definitely not the road less traveled.

David Bardallis can be reached at

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