The Language Police

In the aftermath of the killing in Omagh of young Monaghan man Jason McGovern at the end of December it emerged that the assault which led to his death was not a random act but fitted into a recent pattern of violence in the town. On December 21st, six police officers had been injured during a night of mayhem, when they were attacked after attempting to break up fights between groups of what The Irish Times called “revellers”. On January 3rd an emergency meeting of the Omagh Policing and Community Safety Partnership took place. Among the issues under discussion, the Times report states, was “a community safety review of the night-time economy”.

George Orwell, though it will be sixty-three years on Monday since his death, remains a dominant figure in our understanding of public language and the relationship of language with politics and bureaucracy. Fairly obviously he would have smiled, or perhaps snarled, at the notion of “a community safety review of the night-time economy”; I like to think he would also have sniffed out the rottenness at the heart of the notion of  “partnership”, particularly when it is applied to industrial relations (“No boss, we are not partners: you earn three times what I earn and my loss is almost certainly your gain.”)

Steven Poole, in a sharp piece in today’s Guardian books Review section (January 19th), points out that in spite of the “exhilarating ferocity” with which they were expressed, some of Orwell’s views on language were simply daft. As for the exhilarating ferocity, he was far from immune to practising argument by insult while many of his telling rhetorical points were made by bludgeoning and bullying.

Poole writes:

Nor, according to Orwell’s linguistic xenophobia, is there any excuse for forming new words from Latin or Greek, such as, er, xenophobia. He cites the shockingly ugly examples of ‘predict’ and ‘extraneous’. Orwell never explains why the stolid old Anglo-Saxon should be any more ‘clear’ than such new-fangled horrors; as ‘predict’ and ‘extraneous’ demonstrate now, words minted from the classical will very rapidly seem entirely normal.

Among the words which Orwell wanted booted out of the English language (according to notes he made at around the same time as he was writing Nineteen Eighty Four) were agenda, animus, crux, gratis, quorum and exit. Who, one wonders, was going to enforce this? The language police perhaps.

Poole’s quarrel with Orwell’s remarks on political language, as enunciated, sorry, set out in “Politics and the English Language”, seems to me a little less justified. Bizarrely, he takes issue with the use of the word “purge” (as in “the Russian purges”) as “euphemising the show trials and mass executions ... as a purification of the body politic”. As the young people say, “Hello?”

We must be on our guard: “in our time, weaponised soundbites are deliberately engineered to smuggle the greatest amount of persuasion into the smallest space, to be virally replicated on rolling news”. The rhetorical spurt of large claims Poole is deploying here is normally called hyperbole. And is “austerity”, as he asserts, a euphemism? (If so, what for?). It seems to me to be rather the case that in Ireland for example the almost universal acceptance of the word “austerity” to denote a strategy deliberately and perversely chosen by the government (when there were of course other much better ones to hand) represents a quite considerable political achievement for the far left.

lRead Steven Poole here: