Politics and the Eglinsh Language


"Our civilization is decadent and our languageso the argument runsmust inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes."

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"The bottom line objection against industry-sponsored educational materials is how many more products the company will sell as a result."

"The multiplicity of commodities, as Ivan Illich criticizes, induces a new kind of poverty.…"

"Though corporate-sponsored teaching materials in many subject areas are responding to the needs of a relevant curriculum, they might also be viewed as expedient and defensive public relations in vested ideologies."

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We have decided to begin memorial observances of 1984 a little bit early, since such subversive activities may not be permitted when 1984 rolls around. The epigraph above, however, is not from 1984 but from a celebrated essay, "Politics and the English Language," in which Orwell considers mendacious and mindless language far more common and insidious than the dramatic and perhaps too obviously perverted Newspeak of 1984.

The other passages, written in the Eglinsh language, are all from Hucksterism in the Classroom: A Review of Industry Propaganda in Schools, by one Sheila Harty. Fortunately for Sheila Harty, Orwell did not live to read this book. He would have found even "industry propaganda" less reprehensible than school Eglinsh, for industrialists, unlike "educators," have never promised to devote themselves to the life and work of the mind.

Whether Sheila Harty will ever read "Politics and the English Language" we can not say, but it seems unlikely. She doesn't have to, you see, for her book has been awarded, by some other people who seem never to have read that essay, what the National Council of Teachers of Eglinsh, out of the serene presumptuousness that ignorance alone can bestow, calls the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contributions to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language.

This weird award comes from the NCTE's Committee on Public Doublespeak, an especially shifty bunch. They're the ones who smugly hand out brickbats for the silly and devious language of businessmen, bureaucrats, politicos, and Pentagon spokespersons (which term the NCTE approves) but never seem to notice the inane cant of the educationists or even the trendy jargon of Eglinsh teachering. They wax mighty wroth at "enhanced radiation devices," but they'll not drum out of the corps those experts "thoroughly trained in grammar, usage, and linguistics," who tell us, in their report on the Third National Writing Assessment: "While there may be a sense of sections within the piece of writing, the sheer number and variety of cohesion strategies bind the details and sections into a wholeness."

In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell cites and discusses examples of the "slovenly…language that makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." Grim as Orwell's vision of the future was, he never dreamed that we would one day actually have to worry about gross and obvious solecisms in the public language of supposedly educated people. The faults in his examples do not include such grammatical gaucheries as "bottom line is how" or the pathetic baffled-freshman-trying-to-sound-fancy "as Ivan Illich criticizes." But even without such crudities, Harty's prose displays all the perversions of language that Orwell named: avoidable ugliness, staleness of imagery, and lack of precision.

Orwell was more specific. He discussed the routine use of the dying metaphor, that involuntary verbal twitch that tells us "that the writer is not interested in what he is saying." That seems at first an unlikely charge, especially in polemic writing, but having an interest in a cause is not the same thing as being interested in what you are saying. It is exactly the former that does lead to the thoughtless recitation of cant and stock phrases; it is the latter that demands thoughtful attention.

Was it out of thoughtful attention that Harty chose to characterize an otherwise unspecified attribute as "responding to needs," or was it out of her own habitual responding to the stimulus of conventional educationistic jargon? Was it after a judicious consideration of alternatives or after a jerk of the knee that she decided to distinguish one certain objection from all others by describing it as "the bottom line objection"?

Does she mean to say, as her garbled syntax suggests"the bottom line objection…is how many more products the company will sell"that increased sales are the worst possible result of "industry propaganda" in the schools? You would think that a pack of Eglinsh teachers, most of whom live on money taken from taxpayers, would favor flourishing industries and a vigorous economy. You might even think that the same people, who are devoted, of course, to the intellectual life and the freedom of the mind, might fear some even graver (or bottomer line) consequences of propagandaany propagandain the classroom.

It was not out of skillful attentiveness but out of its opposite, routine thoughtlessness, that Harty ended up with "bottom line" at all, placidly content, apparently, with a particularly inappropriate jargon term borrowed from the enemy. It is out of that same thoughtlessness that the authors of Orwell's bad examples litter their prose with terms "almost completely lacking in meaning [and that] do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader." Harty would know, if she bothered to think about it at all, that her readers would accept "relevant curriculum" and even "vested ideologies" just as uncritically as she does.

Enough. You can do the rest of this yourself. Reread Orwell's essay. Even in those tiny fragments of Sheila Harty's prose, you will easily find all the items listed in Orwell's "catalogue of swindles and perversions." We have to get on with frying the big fish, the one who gives out prizes in Orwell's name for such rubbish.

Before it was catapulted into national prominence by being mentioned in the Underground Grammarian, the National Council of Teachers of Eglinsh was an obscure special interest lobbying club (a vested ideology, if you prefer). Its one little claim to fame arose, strange to say, from what had to be either an ignorance or a deliberate rejection of Orwell's most important assertion about language. Where Orwell thought language not "a natural growth" but "an instrument which we shape for our own purposes," the NCTE, in a time of troubles, made political points for itself (coincidentally taking its members off a hook and reducing their workloads at the same time) by announcing that every student had a right to a language of his own. Thus, to require of students the spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax of the "ruling class" was to deprive them of their rights.

Such logic would not have delighted Orwell. It finds the language of the student a "natural growth," like acne, and then proposes to protect him from the oppressive demands of conventional English because language is an instrument shaped for some purpose.

But that doesn't trouble the NCTE. What, after all, is logic? Just another tricky instrument contrived out of language. They don't care about Sheila Harty's prose, which reveals nothing more than the state of her mind; they love her sentiments, which show that her heart is in the right (which is to say "left") place.

Well, they may be sorry. Those greedy merchants may just this once put principle before profit and cut off the free supply of charts and filmstrips and brochures, and millions of teachers all over America will find themselves desperately trying to figure out what a teacher deprived of teaching materials is supposed to do in a classroom.

Richard Mitchell is the author of Less Than Words Can Say and the publisher of the Underground Grammarian, from which this column is adapted.