March 13 http://moreintelligentlife.com/node/4256
style debate audio
Reading group BBC
Title: British And Foreign
Author: Grant Allen [More Titles by Allen]
Strictly speaking, there is nothing really and truly British; everybody and everything is a naturalised alien. Viewed as Britons, we all of us, human and animal, differ from one another simply in the length of time we and our ancestors have continuously inhabited this favoured and foggy isle of Britain. Look, for example, at the men and women of us. Some of us, no doubt, are more or less remotely of Norman blood, and came over, like that noble family the Slys, with Richard Conqueror. Others of us, perhaps, are in the main Scandinavian, and date back a couple of generations earlier, to the bare-legged followers of Canute and Guthrum. Yet others, once more, are true Saxon Englishmen, descendants of Hengest, if there ever was a Hengest, or of Horsa, if a genuine Horsa ever actually existed. None of these, it is quite clear, have any just right or title to be considered in the last resort as true-born Britons; they are all of them just as much foreigners at bottom as the Spitalfields Huguenots or the Pembrokeshire Flemings, the Italian organ-boy and the Hindoo prince disguised as a crossing-sweeper. But surely the Welshman and the Highland Scot at least are undeniable Britishers, sprung from the soil and to the manner born! Not a bit of it; inexorable modern science, diving back remorselessly into the remoter past, traces the Cymry across the face of Germany, and fixes in shadowy hypothetical numbers the exact date, to a few centuries, of the first prehistoric Gaelic invasion. Even the still earlier brown Euskarians and yellow Mongolians, who held the land before the advent of the ancient Britons, were themselves immigrants; the very Autochthones in person turn out, on close inspection, to be vagabonds and wanderers and foreign colonists. In short, man as a whole is not an indigenous animal at all in the British Isles. Be he who he may, when we push his pedigree back to its prime original, we find him always arriving in the end by the Dover steamer or the Harwich packet. Five years, in fact, are quite sufficient to give him a legal title to letters of naturalisation, unless indeed he be a German grand-duke, in which case he can always become an Englishman off-hand by Act of Parliament.
It is just the same with all the other animals and plants that now inhabit these isles of Britain. If there be anything at all with a claim to be considered really indigenous, it is the Scotch ptarmigan and the Alpine hare, the northern holygrass and the mountain flowers of the Highland summits. All the rest are sojourners and wayfarers, brought across as casuals, like the gipsies and the Oriental plane, at various times to the United Kingdom, some of them recently, some of them long ago, but not one of them (it seems), except the oyster, a true native. The common brown rat, for instance, as everybody knows, came over, not, it is true, with William the Conqueror, but with the Hanoverian dynasty and King George I. of blessed memory. The familiar cockroach, or 'black beetle,' of our lower regions, is an Oriental importation of the last century. The hum of the mosquito is now just beginning to be heard in the land, especially in some big London hotels. The Colorado beetle is hourly expected by Cunard steamer. The Canadian roadside erigeron is well established already in the remoter suburbs; the phylloxera battens on our hothouse vines; the American river-weed stops the navigation on our principal canals. The Ganges and the Mississippi have long since flooded the tawny Thames, as Juvenal's cynical friend declared the Syrian Orontes had flooded the Tiber. And what has thus been going on slowly within the memory of the last few generations has been going on constantly from time immemorial, and peopling Britain in all its parts with its now existing fauna and flora.
But if all the plants and animals in our islands are thus ultimately imported, the question naturally arises, What was there in Great Britain and Ireland before any of their present inhabitants came to inherit them? The answer is, succinctly, Nothing. Or if this be a little too extreme, then let us imitate the modesty of Mr. Gilbert's hero and modify the statement into Hardly anything. In England, as in Northern Europe generally, modern history begins, not with the reign of Queen Elizabeth, but with the passing away of the Glacial Epoch. During that great age of universal ice our Britain, from end to end, was covered at various times by sea and by glaciers; it resembled on the whole the cheerful aspect of Spitzbergen or Nova Zembla at the present day. A few reindeer wandered now and then over its frozen shores; a scanty vegetation of the correlative reindeer-moss grew with difficulty under the sheets and drifts of endless snow; a stray walrus or an occasional seal basked in the chilly sunshine on the ice-bound coast. But during the greatest extension of the North-European ice-sheet it is probable that life in London was completely extinct; the metropolitan area did not even vegetate. Snow and snow and snow and snow was then the short sum-total of British scenery. Murray's Guides were rendered quite unnecessary, and penny ices were a drug in the market. England was given up to one unchanging universal winter.
Slowly, however, times altered, as they are much given to doing; and a new era dawned upon Britain. The thermometer rose rapidly, or at least it would have risen, with effusion, if it had yet been invented. The land emerged from the sea, and southern plants and animals began to invade the area that was afterwards to be England, across the broad belt which then connected us with the Continental system. But in those days communications were slow and land transit difficult. You had to foot it. The European fauna and flora moved but gradually and tentatively north-westward, and before any large part of it could settle in England our island was finally cut off from the mainland by the long and gradual wearing away of the cliffs at Dover and Calais. That accounts for the comparative poverty of animal and vegetable life in England, and still more for its extreme paucity and meagreness in Ireland and the Highlands. It has been erroneously asserted, for example, that St. Patrick expelled snakes and lizards, frogs and toads, from the soil of Erin. This detail, as the French newspapers politely phrase it, is inexact. St. Patrick did not expel the reptiles, because there were never any reptiles in Ireland (except dynamiters) for him to expel. The creatures never got so far on their long and toilsome north-westward march before St. George's Channel intervened to prevent their passage across to Dublin. It is really, therefore, to St. George, rather than to St. Patrick, that the absence of toads and snakes from the soil of Ireland is ultimately due. The doubtful Cappadocian prelate is well known to have been always death on dragons and serpents.
As long ago as the sixteenth century, indeed, Verstegan the antiquary clearly saw that the existence of badgers and foxes in England implied the former presence of a belt of land joining the British Islands to the Continent of Europe; for, as he acutely observed, nobody (before fox-hunting, at least) would ever have taken the trouble to bring them over. Still more does the presence in our islands of the red deer, and formerly of the wild white cattle, the wolf, the bear, and the wild boar, to say nothing of the beaver, the otter, the squirrel, and the weasel, prove that England was once conterminous with France or Belgium. At the very best of times, however, before Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel had killed positively the last 'last wolf' in Britain (several other 'last wolves' having previously been despatched by various earlier intrepid exterminators), our English fauna was far from a rich one, especially as regards the larger quadrupeds. In bats, birds, and insects we have always done better, because to such creatures a belt of sea is not by any means an insuperable barrier; whereas in reptiles and amphibians, on the contrary, we have always been weak, seeing that most reptiles are bad swimmers, and very few can rival the late lamented Captain Webb in his feat of crossing the Channel, as Leander and Lord Byron did the Hellespont.
Only one good-sized animal, so far as known, is now peculiar to the British Isles, and that is our familiar friend the red grouse of the Scotch moors. I doubt, however, whether even he is really indigenous in the strictest sense of the word: that is to say, whether he was evolved in and for these islands exclusively, as the moa and the apteryx were evolved for New Zealand, and the extinct dodo for Mauritius alone. It is far more probable that the red grouse is the original variety of the willow grouse of Scandinavia, which has retained throughout the year its old plumage, while its more northern cousins among the fiords and fjelds have taken, under stress of weather, to donning a complete white dress in winter, and a grey or speckled tourist suit for the summer season.
Even since the insulation of Britain a great many new plants and animals have been added to our population, both by human design and in several other casual fashions. The fallow deer is said to have been introduced by the Romans, and domesticated ever since in the successive parks of Celt and Saxon, Dane and Norman. The edible snail, still scattered thinly over our southern downs, and abundant at Box Hill and a few other spots in Surrey or Sussex, was brought over, they tell us, by the same luxurious Italian epicures, and is even now confined, imaginative naturalists declare, to the immediate neighbourhood of Roman stations. The mediaeval monks, in like manner, introduced the carp for their Friday dinners. One of our commonest river mussels at the present day did not exist in England at all a century ago, but was ferried hither from the Volga, clinging to the bottoms of vessels from the Black Sea, and has now spread itself through all our brooks and streams to the very heart and centre of England. Thus, from day to day, as in society at large, new introductions constantly take place, and old friends die out for ever. The brown rat replaces the old English black rat; strange weeds kill off the weeds of ancient days; fresh flies and grubs and beetles crop up, and disturb the primitive entomological balance. The bustard is gone from Salisbury Plain; the fenland butterflies have disappeared with the drainage of the fens. In their place the red-legged partridge invades Norfolk; the American black bass is making himself quite at home, with Yankee assurance, in our sluggish rivers; and the spoonbill is nesting of its own accord among the warmer corners of the Sussex downs.
In the plant world, substitution often takes place far more rapidly. I doubt whether the stinging nettle, which renders picnicking a nuisance in England, is truly indigenous; certainly the two worst kinds, the smaller nettle and the Roman nettle, are quite recent denizens, never straying, even at the present day, far from the precincts of farmyards and villages. The shepherd's-purse and many other common garden weeds of cultivation are of Eastern origin, and came to us at first with the seed-corn and the peas from the Mediterranean region. Corn-cockles and corn-flowers are equally foreign and equally artificial; even the scarlet poppy, seldom found except in wheat-fields or around waste places in villages, has probably followed the course of tillage from some remote and ancient Eastern origin. There is a pretty blue veronica which was unknown in England some thirty years since, but which then began to spread in gardens, and is now one of the commonest and most troublesome weeds throughout the whole country. Other familiar wild plants have first been brought over as garden flowers. There is the wall-flower, for instance, now escaped from cultivation in every part of Britain, and mantling with its yellow bunches both old churches and houses and also the crannies of the limestone cliffs around half the shores of England. The common stock has similarly overrun the sea-front of the Isle of Wight; the monkey-plant, originally a Chilian flower, has run wild in many boggy spots in England and Wales; and a North American balsam, seldom cultivated even in cottage gardens, has managed to establish itself in profuse abundance along the banks of the Wey about Guildford and Godalming. One little garden linaria, at first employed as an ornament for hanging-baskets, has become so common on old walls and banks as to be now considered a mere weed, and exterminated accordingly by fashionable gardeners. Such are the unaccountable reverses of fortune, that one age will pay fifty guineas a bulb for a plant which the next age grubs up unanimously as a vulgar intruder. White of Selborne noticed with delight in his own kitchen that rare insect, the Oriental cockroach, lately imported; and Mr. Brewer observed with joy in his garden at Reigate the blue Buxbaum speedwell, which is now the acknowledged and hated pest of the Surrey agriculturist.
The history of some of these waifs and strays which go to make up the wider population of Britain is indeed sufficiently remarkable. Like all islands, England has a fragmentary fauna and flora, whose members have often drifted towards it in the most wonderful and varied manner. Sometimes they bear witness to ancient land connections, as in the case of the spotted Portuguese slug which Professor Allman found calmly disporting itself on the basking cliffs in the Killarney district. In former days, when Spain and Ireland joined hands in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, the ancestors of this placid Lusitanian mollusk must have ranged (good word to apply to slugs) from the groves of Cintra to the Cove of Cork. But, as time rolled on, the cruel crawling sea rolled on also, and cut away all the western world from the foot of the Asturias to Macgillicuddy's Reeks. So the spotted slug continued to survive in two distinct and divided bodies, a large one in South-western Europe, and a small isolated colony, all alone by itself, around the Kerry mountains and the Lakes of Killarney. At other times pure accident accounts for the presence of a particular species in the mainlands of Britain. For example, the Bermuda grass-lily, a common American plant, is known in a wild state nowhere in Europe save at a place called Woodford, in county Galway. Nobody ever planted it there; it has simply sprung up from some single seed, carried over, perhaps, on the feet of a bird, or cast ashore by the Gulf Stream on the hospitable coast of Western Ireland. Yet there it has flourished and thriven ever since, a naturalised British subject of undoubted origin, without ever spreading to north or south above a few miles from its adopted habitat.
There are several of these unconscious American importations in various parts of Britain, some of them, no doubt, brought over with seed-corn or among the straw of packing-cases, but others unconnected in any way with human agency, and owing their presence here to natural causes. That pretty little Yankee weed, the claytonia, now common in parts of Lancashire and Oxfordshire, first made its appearance amongst us, I believe, by its seeds being accidentally included with the sawdust in which Wenham Lake ice is packed for transport. The Canadian river-weed is known first to have escaped from the botanical gardens at Cambridge, whence it spread rapidly through the congenial dykes and sluices of the fen country, and so into the entire navigable network of the Midland counties. But there are other aliens of older settlement amongst us, aliens of American origin which nevertheless arrived in Britain, in all probability, long before Columbus ever set foot on the low basking sandbank of Cat Island. Such is the jointed pond-sedge of the Hebrides, a water-weed found abundantly in the lakes and tarns of the Isle of Skye, Mull and Coll, and the west coast of Ireland, but occurring nowhere else throughout the whole expanse of Europe or Asia. How did it get there? Clearly its seeds were either washed by the waves or carried by birds, and thus deposited on the nearest European shores to America. But if Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace had been alive in pre-Columban days (which, as Euclid remarks, is absurd), he would readily have inferred, from the frequent occurrence of such unknown plants along the western verge of Britain, that a great continent lay unexplored to the westward, and would promptly have proceeded to discover and annex it. As Mr. Wallace was not yet born, however, Columbus took a mean advantage over him, and discovered it first by mere right of primogeniture.
In other cases, the circumstances under which a particular plant appears in England are often very suspicious. Take the instance of the belladonna, or deadly nightshade, an extremely rare British species, found only in the immediate neighbourhood of old castles and monastic buildings. Belladonna, of course, is a deadly poison, and was much used in the half-magical, half-criminal sorceries of the Middle Ages. Did you wish to remove a troublesome rival or an elder brother, you treated him to a dose of deadly nightshade. Yet why should it, in company with many other poisonous exotics, be found so frequently around the ruins of monasteries? Did the holy fathers--but no, the thought is too irreverent. Let us keep our illusions, and forget the friar and the apothecary in 'Romeo and Juliet.'
Belladonna has never fairly taken root in English soil. It remains, like the Roman snail and the Portuguese slug, a mere casual straggler about its ancient haunts. But there are other plants which have fairly established their claim to be considered as native-born Britons, though they came to us at first as aliens and colonists from foreign parts. Such, to take a single case, is the history of the common alexanders, now a familiar weed around villages and farmyards, but only introduced into England as a pot-herb about the eighth or ninth century. It was long grown in cottage gardens for table purposes, but has for ages been superseded in that way by celery. Nevertheless, it continues to grow all about our lanes and hedges, side by side with another quaintly-named plant, bishop-weed or gout-weed, whose very titles in themselves bear curious witness to its original uses in this isle of Britain. I don't know why, but it is an historical fact that the early prelates of the English Church, saintly or otherwise, were peculiarly liable to that very episcopal disease, the gout. Whether their frequent fasting produced this effect; whether, as they themselves piously alleged, it was due to constant kneeling on the cold stones of churches; or whether, as their enemies rather insinuated, it was due in greater measure to the excellent wines presented to them by their Italian _confreres_, is a minute question to be decided by Mr. Freeman, not by the present humble inquirer. But the fact remains that bishops and gout got indelibly associated in the public mind; that the episcopal toes were looked upon as especially subject to that insidious disease up to the very end of the last century; and that they do say the bishops even now--but I refrain from the commission of _scandalum magnatum_. Anyhow, this particular weed was held to be a specific for the bishop's evil; and, being introduced and cultivated for the purpose, it came to be known indifferently to herbalists as bishop-weed and gout-weed. It has now long since ceased to be a recognised member of the British Pharmacopoeia, but, having overrun our lanes and thickets in its flush period, it remains to this day a visible botanical and etymological memento of the past twinges of episcopal remorse.
Taken as a whole, one may fairly say that the total population of the British Isles consists mainly of three great elements. The first and oldest--the only one with any real claim to be considered as truly native--is the cold Northern, Alpine and Arctic element, comprising such animals as the white hare of Scotland, the ptarmigan, the pine marten, and the capercailzie--the last once extinct, and now reintroduced into the Highlands as a game bird. This very ancient fauna and flora, left behind soon after the Glacial Epoch, and perhaps in part a relic of the type which still struggled on in favoured spots during that terrible period of universal ice and snow, now survives for the most part only in the extreme north and on the highest and chilliest mountain-tops, where it has gradually been driven, like tourists in August, by the increasing warmth and sultriness of the southern lowlands. The summits of the principal Scotch hills are occupied by many Arctic plants, now slowly dying out, but lingering yet as last relics of that old native British flora. The Alpine milk vetch thus loiters among the rocks of Braemar and Clova; the Arctic brook-saxifrage flowers but sparingly near the summit of Ben Lawers, Ben Nevis, and Lochnagar; its still more northern ally, the drooping saxifrage, is now extinct in all Britain, save on a single snowy Scotch height, where it now rarely blossoms, and will soon become altogether obsolete. There are other northern plants of this first and oldest British type, like the Ural oxytrope, the cloudberry, and the white dryas, which remain as yet even in the moors of Yorkshire, or over considerable tracts in the Scotch Highlands; there are others restricted to a single spot among the Welsh hills, an isolated skerry among the outer Hebrides, or a solitary summit in the Lake District. But wherever they linger, these true-born Britons of the old rock are now but strangers and outcasts in the land; the intrusive foreigner has driven them to die on the cold mountain-tops, as the Celt drove the Mongolian to the hills, and the Saxon, in turn, has driven the Celt to the Highlands and the islands. Yet as late as the twelfth century itself, even the true reindeer, the Arctic monarch of the Glacial Epoch, was still hunted by Norwegian jarls of Orkney on the mainland of Caithness and Sutherlandshire.
Second in age is the warm western and south-western type, the type represented by the Portuguese slug, the arbutus trees and Mediterranean heaths of the Killarney district, the flora of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, and the peculiar wild flowers of South Wales, Devonshire, and the west country generally. This class belongs by origin to the submerged land of Lyonesse, the warm champaign country that once spread westward over the Bay of Biscay, and derived from the Gulf Stream the genial climate still preserved by its last remnants at Tresco and St. Mary's. The animals belonging to this secondary stratum of our British population are few and rare, but of its plants there are not a few, some of them extending over the whole western shores of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, wherever they are washed by the Gulf Stream, and others now confined to particular spots, often with the oddest apparent capriciousness. Thus, two or three southern types of clover are peculiar to the Lizard Point, in Cornwall; a little Spanish and Italian restharrow has got stranded in the Channel Islands and on the Mull of Galloway; the spotted rock-rose of the Mediterranean grows only in Kerry, Galway, and Anglesea; while other plants of the same warm habit are confined to such spots as Torquay, Babbicombe, Dawlish, Cork, Swansea, Axminster, and the Scilly Isles. Of course, all peninsulas and islands are warmer in temperature than inland places, and so these relics of the lost Lyonesse have survived here and there in Cornwall, Carnarvonshire, Kerry, and other very projecting headlands long after they have died out altogether from the main central mass of Britain. South-western Ireland in particular is almost Portuguese in the general aspect of its fauna and flora.
Third and latest of all in time, though almost contemporary with the southern type, is the central European or Germanic element in our population. Sad as it is to confess it, the truth must nevertheless be told, that our beasts and birds, our plants and flowers, are for the most part of purely Teutonic origin. Even as the rude and hard-headed Anglo-Saxon has driven the gentle, poetical, and imaginative Celt ever westward before him into the hills and the sea, so the rude and vigorous Germanic beasts and weeds have driven the gentler and softer southern types into Wales and Cornwall, Galloway and Connemara. It is to the central European population that we owe or owed the red deer, the wild boar, the bear, the wolf, the beaver, the fox, the badger, the otter, and the squirrel. It is to the central European flora that we owe the larger part of the most familiar plants in all eastern and southeastern England. They crossed in bands over the old land belt before Britain was finally insulated, and they have gone on steadily ever since, with true Teutonic persistence, overrunning the land and pushing slowly westward, like all other German bands before or since, to the detriment and discomfort of the previous inhabitants. Let us humbly remember that we are all of us at bottom foreigners alike, but that it is the Teutonic English, the people from the old Low Dutch fatherland by the Elbe, who have finally given to this isle its name of England, and to every one of us, Celt or Teuton, their own Teutonic name of Englishmen. We are at best, as an irate Teuton once remarked, 'nozzing but segond-hand Chermans.' In the words of a distinguished modern philologist of our own blood, 'English is Dutch, spoken with a Welsh accent.'
Grant Allen's essay: British And Foreign
Grant Allen's essay: British And Foreign
George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must 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.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.
These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad -- I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen -- but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:
- 1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.
- Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression)
- Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossa)
- Essay on psychology in Politics (New York)
- Communist pamphlet
- Letter in Tribune
Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes 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. Examples are: 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, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning withouth those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.
Operators or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.
Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.* The jargon peculiar to
*An interesting illustration of this is the way in which English flower names were in use till very recently are being ousted by Greek ones, Snapdragon becoming antirrhinum, forget-me-not becoming myosotis, etc. It is hard to see any practical reason for this change of fashion: it is probably due to an instinctive turning away from the more homely word and a vague feeling that the Greek word is scientific.
Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.† Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in
† Example: Comfort's catholicity of perception and image, strangely Whitmanesque in range, almost the exact opposite in aesthetic compulsion, continues to evoke that trembling atmospheric accumulative hinting at a cruel, an inexorably serene timelessness . . .Wrey Gardiner scores by aiming at simple bull's-eyes with precision. Only they are not so simple, and through this contented sadness runs more than the surface bittersweet of resignation." (Poetry Quarterly)
the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, "The outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality," while another writes, "The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness," the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.
Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from 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 favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel 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. Exhibit (3) above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. 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 phrases "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 considerations 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 forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those 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 ninety 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.
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier -- even quicker, once you have the habit -- to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don't have to hunt about for the words; you also don't have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry -- when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech -- it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash -- as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot -- it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in fifty three words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip -- alien for akin -- making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means; (3), if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink. In (5), words and meaning have almost parted company. People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning -- they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another -- but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
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 undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade 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 toward 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.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find -- this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify -- that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning's post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he "felt impelled" to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: "[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany's social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe." You see, he "feels impelled" to write -- feels, presumably, that he has something new to say -- and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain.
I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence*, to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases
*One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.
and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defense of the English language implies more than this, and perhaps it is best to start by saying what it does not imply.
To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a "standard English" which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with 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." On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one's meaning. 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:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) 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. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.
I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. 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. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs.