THERE are times when I think George Orwell has had a bad influence on our language. His distrust of long words and too-familiar figures of speech, passed on by teachers for 50 years now, encouraged honest thinking and made us wary of sententiousness and cant. We pared down our vocabulary and felt the better for it. ("Simplify, simplify!" my English teacher used to write at the bottom of my schoolboy essays.) All very sound; but these austere precepts have left us so anxious to follow them that we have lost the means of expressing our deepest feelings.
MPs "struggled to find words" about the Dunblane massacre, said the Radio 4 news bulletin last Thursday. , shock and horror were those most often heard, and of course they are inadequate, particularly now that shock and horror have been devalued over and over again by the popular press.
Victorians had no inhibitions of the kind Orwell implanted in us. They were not afraid that familiar metaphors might be thought insincere. "A lovely vision she was ... like a swift angel, with a flying glance over her shoulder, at us who must follow whither she draws us" - Mary Gladstone must surely have been moved when she read this in a letter of condolence for the death of a young friend in 1886. Who can write or say such things now? No, we struggle to find words. "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out," said Orwell. Well, we have overpruned, and should not be surprised at the quality of the fruit.
Even "simple" words like grieve have begun, through lack of enough "simple" words in general, to lose their glow from overuse, and to take on that air of the platitudinous against which Orwell wrote so eloquently in 1946. His crusade has led to the opposite of what he intended.
Nicholas BagnallReuse content