Power of words dissolves with overuse, misuse

In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay called “Politics and the English Language,” asserting that modern language had lost the value of clear, honest expression. He attributed the sorry state of contemporary writing to attempts to avoid unpleasant truths, to sound important and to escape the effort required to be original. One of the most insightful (and humorous) parts of the essay is Orwell’s translation of a passage from Ecclesiastes into modern English. “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong … but time and chance happeneth to them all,” becomes “objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity.”

Sixty years after Orwell, I’m left to wonder: How would we translate Ecclesiastes into the terms of current Yalie discourse — in section, for example? “Just to go off what Solomon said, I see the point that there might not be a totally verifiable connection between your initial situation and where you end up, right?”

As Yale students, we’re linguistically torn. Just starting to understand the jargon of our academic specialties, we long to imitate the graceful lectures of our favorite teachers. But we’re also surrounded by popular culture, casual encounters and a common disapproval of fancy, elevated language. We’re self-conscious about being perceived as elitist, self-conscious about being perceived as not wanting to be perceived as elitist and so on. As our motivations and influences become more convoluted, so does our language.

As the split between our intellectual aspirations and our desire for universal appeal intensifies, our speech habits become confused and, oftentimes, artificial.

One increasingly prominent example of this phenomenon is the current use of the word “right” as a question inserted between declarative statements as if to say, “Of course, I’m right, now let’s move on.” “Right” has taken the place of such fillers as “like” and “I mean,” but it’s far more treacherous. When I say “God would have majored in math, right? Because it’s the subject of the eternal, unchanging things,” I am throwing the word “right” at you as though I am saying something obvious when, in fact, I am not. I am assuming that you have agreed with my statement without giving you a chance to respond. If I think something is right, I should have to prove it.

Saying “right” can be successful in making a point — the word is mentally associated with ideas of correctness and truth. It’s almost Pavlovian. But as “right” is used more and more often to create this empty association instead of forming a serious inquiry, it will lose its original meaning (that which is certain and understood to be true) and become less effective at triggering a positive response (nods of approval). Perhaps this is why “right” may go the way of “you know,” which has a similar literal meaning but no longer makes us feel that we are bolstering our argument by inserting it in a sentence.

So we could wait for “right” to become a victim of its own success, or we could try to say what we want to say without its interference. Of course, this is but one example of our language’s lack of clarity. Even if, from time to time, we all make the mistake of writing in a way Orwell would abhor, we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of precise language. Orwell’s essay teaches us that language matters, politically and socially; the way we communicate with one another has consequences for the way we organize our lives.

One example from today’s political atmosphere is the world “engage.” We hear a great deal about the value of “engaging” with countries around the world; the word is supposed to inspire thoughts of diplomacy, discretion, thoughtful consideration and friendliness. But when we poke a little harder, it becomes very difficult to understand what “engage” is supposed to mean. Should we send more diplomats abroad? Offer incentives packages to rogue regimes? Consult the Security Council before taking military action? What does a policy of “engagement” tell us to do when other countries, despite our best efforts, refuse to “come to terms” (a phrase straight from the dictionary) with our ideas? The word “engage” is a useful way for presidential candidates and students alike to make policy recommendations without saying anything controversial. We will only discover it’s concrete meaning if we end up being governed by someone who urges “engagement.” Is this the way we want our democracy to work?

Words are sensitive and powerful tools. We will sometimes use them incorrectly, make honest mistakes, fail to realize our assumptions and even twist the English language in a creative and productive way. But no matter what we do with our words, let’s remember that they have meaning and use them to reflect the thoughts we want to convey.

Rachel Bayefsky is a junior in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

Comments