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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

60 years of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The novel’s impact on popular culture and politics is difficult to underestimate. In large part because of it, Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) has become one of the 20th century’s towering literary and journalistic figures.

Orwell the novelist created and used “Newspeak” in his final major work to show us how language is manipulated in a totalitarian regime, and his work challenges us to think about how the same forces of manipulation may be used in a freer society than that of his fictional Oceania. The appendix, in which the author explains the principles of this new mode of expression, is a masterful warning about what public speech may become -
perhaps even more relevant today than it was 60 years ago.

So today, you oldthinker, be sure to put down your prolefeed for a moment to fullwise reflect on the doubleplus goodthinkfully malreported "Nineteen Eighty-Four" without a hint of facecrime before it goes down the memory hole and your own life is packed off to Room 101.

Those of us who are practitioners in public communications should be especially grateful for Orwell's dystopian tale of political, linguistic and thought control for his warning about the special responsibilities we owe to the public and our clients.

But it should be noted that Orwell the citizen and man was concerned with language's misuse well before his famous masterpiece. In a 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," he said,

"..the English language...becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."
[George Orwell, Why I Write (New York: Penguin, 2005) 102]

But not content to just diagnose a problem, the veteran working journalist also suggested small ways to improve our thinking and expression:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other fugure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use a passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

[ibidem, 119]

Good, practical, everyday advice - which we at Goff & Howard generally follow - from the man who wanted to make sure that our words, our thoughts, and ultimately our politics would not lead to oldthinking unpersons being vaporized by Big Brother in joycamps.