Do you listen to your politicians? I’m not asking do you follow their advice: I’m asking do you literally listen to them?
Just over seventy years ago, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled “Politics and the English Language”. I’ll give the link to it below, but I’d like to highlight a few of the things he says in it.
One major complaint – and remember, this is in 1946 – is that politicians write or deliver speeches in which “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning and more and more phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”.
To take one example: he looks at what he calls “dying metaphors”. Properly used, a metaphor helps by presenting a visual image which aids meaning and allows the reader/listener to understand better. However, according to Orwell, there is “a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves”.
He then lists examples: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed.
Not only are these clichés produced by lazy thinkers, Orwell argues, but the people using them often don’t know what they mean – what is a ‘rift’ for example, or what’s the difference in riding over something roughshod and just riding over it, and what are you doing when you toe the line?
I suggest, as we head into the election campaign, that we watch for politicians using any of the list Orwell has given us or other examples we may spot ourselves. (My own favourite is “going forward”, which is invariably meaningless, as our own WordMaster Perkin has shown by substituting “going backwards”. I’m also not mad about “First of all”, a sin which Gerry Adams commits regularly.)
Lazy language, lazy thought: that essentially is Orwell’s argument, and one I’d agree with. So be on the alert and be sure to let us know who said or wrote it, and when and where. Who knows? We may even shame some of our politicians into thinking before they speak.