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Word Play: Orwell’s advice


WORLD Radio - Word Play: Orwell’s advice

Be on guard against corruption of thought wrought by bad clichés

A protester holds a German translation of George Orwell's book 1984 in Berlin, Germany. Getty Images/Photo by Adam Berry

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday April 12th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up next: Word Play with WORLD commentator George Grant. Today: the cliche.

GEORGE GRANT: George Orwell was the author of the 20th century literary classics Animal Farm and 1984. Both books were morality tales that warned against the debasement of freedom wrought by modern ideological dystopias. They also warned against the degradation of language wrought by bombast and bromides. “If thought can corrupt language, language can also corrupt thought,” he wrote. “A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better…. So, the invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them.”

His advice is as relevant and sound today as it was three quarters of a century ago—cautioning us against the use of jargon, complex syntax, pompous phrasing, pretentious vocabulary, and most especially tired, overused buzz-words.

Bad cliches abound in our day: “It’s a win-win situation.” “Think outside the box.” “Push the envelope.” “Drink the Kool-Aid.” “Put it in the pipeline.” “Get granular.” “Run it up the flagpole.” “Dial it down a notch.” “Stay in your lane.” “At the end of the day.” “Fly under the radar.” “Hold my beer.” “Sleep with the angels.” “Slip through the cracks.” And, “I really don’t have the bandwidth for that.”

“Going forward” means “next.” So, say “next.” “Actionable items” are a to-do list. “Ideation” means “think it over.” “Disambiguate” is an ambiguous way of saying “Remove the ambiguity.” “Self-care” used to be called “taking a nap.” Google just about anything, from coffee and burgers to must-read books and must-see movies and you’ll find “curated lists.” And worse, you’re likely to find the tautology of “carefully curated lists.”

If we want to be “scrupulous” writers, though, Orwell argues we must ask ourselves “at least four questions…What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”

Now admittedly, we’re all likely to use some of these commonplace “word salads” from time to time. Bad cliches are, Orwell says, “in some ways very convenient …. Words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern.”

So, this is hardly a “hill to die on” or a needful “recalibration of our moral compass.” But, when our cliches only “muddy the waters” of communication, that ought to be a “red flag” for all of us.

Sitting here in my wheelhouse, I’m George Grant.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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