Leading article: This `Orwellian future' is an allusion too far

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The Independent Culture
MODERN SCIENCE is, of course, highly complex. So it is understandable that those embroiled in public debate should reach for metaphors to throw light on issues of a technical nature in order to engage the wider public. But when people in the public eye opt to replace scientific terms with phrases employing literary allusions, they should get the literature right. Otherwise, the argument becomes even more confused.

The latest person to fall into this trap is that self-declared protector of Queen's English, the Prince of Wales. Yesterday he conjured up the image of an "Orwellian future", in a newspaper article on genetically modified food. Sadly, the Prince failed to clarify precisely which of George Orwell's books he was referring to; was it 1984, with its nightmare world of authoritarian rulers, or Animal Farm, where the beasts have been so extensively genetically modified that they can talk? "Orwellian" in this context should have something to do with the actions of a totalitarian society, but genetically modified food is an instance where the state is less powerful than multinational companies. Instead of making the future sound frightening, this illiterate allusion momentarily clouds the issue.

The Prime Minister was right to criticise the term "Frankenstein food" when he discussed this subject. Dr Frankenstein is the scientist, not his deformed creation. "Frankenstein food" confusingly puts the monster in place of the man. The tendentious allusion is unhelpful.

Call us pedantic, but the language of public discourse matters. Coiners of literary allusions for scientific terms should take a leaf out of the book Dr Frankenstein's monster used to learn his English - Milton's Paradise Lost - and get their metaphors straight.