The Evolution of the English Language

Modern English is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. 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, and so on indefinitely.

Dying metaphors are used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. However, they have lost all evocative power. Examples are “toe the line” and “ride roughshodover.” Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning, and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed. Some metaphors have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact.

Pretentious diction is used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Foreign words and expressions such as ‘mutatis mutandis’, ‘status quo’, and ‘weltanschauung’ are used given an air of culture and elegance. There is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. The result, in general, is an increase is slovenliness and vagueness.

Meaningless words abound. The word ‘Fascism’ has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ The words ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, and ‘justice’ have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like ‘democracy’, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it. Consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. The person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

Today, it seems that political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Political language consists largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trail: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.

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