Archives For George Orwell

A Literary Phobia

May 2, 2013 — 8 Comments

hipposWhat in the world does this protracted word mean?

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

From the suffix, we can assume that it refers to some sort of “fear.” But fear of what? Hippopotami?

No, this lengthy word doesn’t refer to the African “river horses” from which it derives its beginning. This peculiar construction describes nothing other than a fear of long words!

I know people who find long words daunting . . . but none who have admitted to be in fear of them. I myself am a bit intimidated by unfamiliar words that I have to pronounce in front of others. (I recently visited a writing group that caught me off guard with their practice of reading one another’s work out loud. Not only was I the first person expected to begin reading the first article critiqued that morning—it included a number of words from French cuisine with which I was unfamiliar.)

I don’t mind encountering unfamiliar words in a text (that I’m reading privately), especially when the meaning is evident from the context. In fact, I often enjoy the introduction, since it expands my own vocabulary.

The fact his, however, that many very gifted writers warn their readers to avoid lengthy or complicated words.

Just last week I contrasted George Orwell’s writing advice with that of C.S. Lewis. Orwell said,

“Never use a long word when a short one will do.”

C.S. Lewis, included in his short list of advice the encouragement to,

“Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one.”

While these suggestions may “sound” identical, they are not. Orwell is concerned here with simplicity (rather than brevity, per se). Lewis, though, is advocating clarity.

Lewis does not object at all to using a multisyllabic word. He merely argues that the choice needs to be one that helps communicate rather than confuse. Allow me to share a simple example. Following Lewis’ counsel, one of these sentences would be problematic, while the other would be okay.

Life is all about love.

Experiencing contentment and joy relates directly to one’s ability to offer, and receive, affection from other human beings.

Obviously one sentence is far more complex than the other. However, it’s meaning is quite clear. The simpler, five word sentence is so vague as to allow for any number of interpretations. For example, in addition to the alternative above, it might mean (to its writer):

Without a foundation of self-love, we cannot experience life to its fullest.

     or . . .

At the Final Judgment, it is only our acts of love that will pass intact through the “purifying fire.”

     or . . .

The more people with whom you can “sow your wild oats,” the happier you will be.

The Government Intervenes

Amazing as it may seem, the United States government actually has a website devoted to promoting simple language: plainlanguage.com. It exists to help implement the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

While the effectiveness of the statute is debatable, it’s intention is praiseworthy.

On one page it directs agencies to avoid complex words. Instead of “endeavoring to assist,” writers are told to use “told to help.” While that is absolutely commendable in governmental documents, I prefer a bit more flavor when I’m reading for pleasure.

I strongly encourage anyone suffering from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia to seek professional help. This is especially true for those who desire to express themselves clearly. We need never fear a lengthy word—as long as we are using the right word!

Orwellian Advice

April 8, 2013 — 11 Comments

cls orwellThe title of this post is slightly misleading. In truth, it does contains advice from Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) whose pen name was George Orwell. However, because of the impact of his two dystopian classics, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, the author’s name has actually become a true English adjective . . . one that might suggest I’m alluding to futuristic or totalitarian matters.

Or·well·i·an [awr-wel-ee-uhn] means something that resembles his literary work, especially as described in the aforementioned novel and novella. (Within the Christian literary community, “Lewisian” is common shorthand for referring to C.S. Lewis . . . but that word is unlikely to ever find its way into standard dictionaries.)

Despite the enormous (and eternal) differences between Orwell and Lewis, they did have something significant in common. More about that in a moment.

As the graphic I created above reveals (from actual quotations), Lewis had a better opinion of Orwell’s work than vice versa. Orwell disliked Lewis and resented the fact that he was popular among many common people. He particularly disliked Lewis’ traditional (evangelical) Christianity. In his review of That Hideous Strength, Orwell dismissed the biblically based supernatural as a version of “magic.”

Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story . . .

Orwell was one of those “professing” Christians who is accurately labeled a hypocrite. He was a communing member of the Church of England, and advocated a Judeo-Christian moral code, but did not believe in an afterlife. The following letter, written to Eleanor Jaques in 1932, reveals his hypocrisy.

It seems rather mean to go to HC [Holy Communion] when one doesn’t believe, but I have passed myself off for pious & there is nothing for it but to keep up with the deception.

In a comment to my last post, a good friend of Mere Inkling, Brenton Dickieson at A Pilgrim in Narnia, reminded me of a thought-provoking essay on English written by Orwell. His essay, “Politics and the English Language,” addresses a number of problems with the language. He considers dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words.

A Similarity in the Two Writers’ Advice

Orwell’s goal is “the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style.’”  [As irritating as I imagine most Europeans find Americanisms!] Writers of fiction will enjoy the way Orwell explains the challenge of “showing, not telling.”

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it.

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

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.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

Students of Lewis will note in the final passage the parallel with advice he provided to a correspondent in 1956. Although the context is different—Orwell’s is a formal essay and Lewis’ a casual correspondence written to a child, the similarities are significant. Lewis would have been familiar with Orwell’s essay, composed a decade before his letter, but the resemblance between their words is better attributed to shared literary philosophies and the self-evident nature of the principles. Lewis identified five important considerations when writing.

1. Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure [your] sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very;” otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Whatever the two authors thought about the other, they certainly shared some similar views on the subject of effective writing. And, I think we can assume with confidence that Lewis would concur with Orwell’s final rule. Under no circumstances should we resort to barbarity! For, as Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?”

____

If you are interested in reading Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in its entirety, you can find it here.