Monday, October 9, 2017

Words that create a mental fog - III

In  Politics and the English language, George Orwell bemoans the deterioration of the English language with people now using vague generalities to cover-up realities. He illustrates his point by translating into modern English a well-known sentence in Ecclesiastes - 'I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth.' His translation and analysis:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
This is a parody, but not a very gross one...It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations – race, battle, bread – dissolve into the vague phrase "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing – no one capable of using phrases like "objective consideration of contemporary phenomena" – would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. 
The first contains 49 words but only 60 syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains 38 words of 90 syllables: 18 of its words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its 90 syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from ECCLESIASTES.
A more contemporary example of such vagueness is the explanation of the financial crisis of a decade ago by the former chairman of the American Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. Paul Krugman said that the explanation had a Hirohito feel to it. (When announcing Japan’s surrender in 1945, Emperor Hirohito famously explained his decision as follows: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”) Bernanke's explanation: “Market discipline has in some cases broken down, and the incentives to follow prudent lending procedures have, at times, eroded.”

The noise made by party spokespersons almost always tries one’s patience. They often say something to fill the time For eg., a BJP spokesman said that when growth picks up, job growth will improve. And the discussion was about there being jobless growth in the past decade! And as if by reflex, the Congress spokesman criticized the statement without showing any sign that he remembered that a major portion of this period occurred when his party was in power and it was making similar statements at that time. In the above-mentioned essay, Orwell writes (the first two paragraph are combined into one paragraph in the essay):
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line." Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White Papers and the speeches of under-secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. 
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – BESTIAL ATROCITIES, IRON HEEL, BLOODSTAINED TYRANNY, FREE PEOPLES OF THE WORLD, STAND SHOULDER TO SHOULDER – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. 
PS: A paper by a Princeton University professor called ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly’ explores the habit of many students of using complex words to give the impression of intelligence. You would no doubt have noticed such a tendency to utilize erudite vernacular irrespective of necessity in this blog. What to do, I am like that only (sic)!

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