Wednesday, June 15, 2011


"At this moment in time, there seems to be a sharp learning curve when it comes to raising awareness about how its the economy, stupid."

At the Independent, John Rentoul offers a list of 100 words or phrases that they think should be banned from the English Language. A lot of people picked this up, for good reason, and I have to agree with most of what they say.

The list includes phrases such as "epic fail," "What part of x don’t you understand?" and "At the end of the day." Some, unfortunately, I find myself using, such as starting a post with "so" and "fairly unique" which is self contradictory - you cannot be somewhat unique, its an all or nothing sort of term.

Others I think most can agree on, like "See what I/he/she did there?" and "The suffix -gate added to any news theme supposedly embarrassing to a government." That last one I avoid completely, preferring "-quiddick" as a suffix, to remind people of serial adulterer and murderer Ted Kennedy. Which is worse, in your opinion: a president lying about what operatives did for him or horribly drowning a girl, going drinking for a few hours, then bothering to tell the cops?

Conservatives especially need to retire the "-gate" suffix, which only serves to propagate the myth that Richard Nixon was the worst man ever in politics. He's not even close.

The section of the Independent piece which most captured my attention, however, was this part (slightly edited formatting for clarity):
The original Banned List was, of course, George Orwell’s in 1946:

dying metaphors (“Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed”);

verbal false limbs (“Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of”);

pretentious diction (“Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilise, eliminate, liquidate”); and meaningless words (his examples included “class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality”).
Not only is George Orwell right (again), but his list is brilliant. How many of these have been so used by so many people that they have lost their interesting turn and become not only part of the language, but a respected part? Terms like "hotbed" and "stand shoulder to shoulder with" have taken on a sort of dignity, used in official speeches as if they were blessed by Ovid and Shakespeare. I would truly hate to see a phrase such as "perfect storm" (one I don't care for and have not used to the best of my knowledge) become anointed by time in this manner.

Orwell had six rules which he suggested writers should heed:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure 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 the 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.
Those are all very fine rules. The rules such as "never start a sentence with a preposition" I have pretty well memorized (although I still do at times), but these would be even more useful to memorize, particularly for creating writing. Number 4 and number 5 don't necessarily apply for creative writing as opposed to formal writing, but they are good to keep in mind.

I write fantasy novels (or perhaps novelettes) and I have this creeping dread of slipping colloquialisms and idioms into them from our culture. It just doesn't make sense to have a wizard fighting a dragon yell something like "pwned!" and that's easy to avoid, since I hate the term to begin with. But there are more subtle errors such as having a fantasy character use a phrase such as "the cat's out of the bag" or "quantum leap."

Those can be useful terms, but they don't make any sense for someone in an entirely different culture to use, because they are exclusively part of our culture. One of the most challenging (and fun) parts of writing fantasy to me is trying to make it clear that I'm writing about a different world without making it incomprehensible.

In the book A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess invented a slang based on the Russian language which was fascinating and not only felt plausible but gave the street gangs a certain authenticity and chilling believability that they might not have had. Unfortunately, it made the book largely unreadable as well, since he didn't bother explaining a bit of it, and it is a challenge to plow through.

The challenge is to create slang, idioms, cliches, and unique, cultural phrases and references without being so obscure they cannot be understood. I worked hard at this for Old Habits (coming soon, God willing, to an e-reader near you) and I want to keep working at it as time goes on. Every time I use a phrase from the Banned List (or any other culturally unique phrase) the believability of the book and its immersive ability is damaged, even if people do not notice it. The problem is, like everyone, I swim in the culture in which I live, and often don't even realize I have used this sort of term.

Another problem is that if you systematically strip out all folksy, colloquial terms and comfortable phrases, your writing can tend to become uncomfortably formal and intellectual. It may be technically more correct, but readers will find the writing more awkward and difficult to connect to. And that's why I think a lot of otherwise great writers will deliberately use these sorts of phrases, to make the connection easier.

Which brings me to modern writing. There is a hideous, repulsive tendency (especially in Hollywood) to insert modern idiom deliberately into inappropriate settings just to "bring the funny" (to use a phrase which ought to be banned). It is meant to be ironic, hip, and "relevant to modern audiences" to do this. So you have King Henry VIII saying things like "wake up and smell the coffee!"

To audiences that's a laugh line. To me, its jarring and ruins the feel of the movie. Thus, movies like Your Highness which deliberately do this to seem culturally connected and make audiences like the story despite its odd setting just do not work for me. When the evil wizard shows up to steal the princess, this exchange takes place:

Fabious:"And just how do you plan on doing that"
Leezar: "Magic" *cracks neck* "Mother@*&!er!"

Ha. Ha. He's an urban badass Wizard. Except now the setting doesn't feel quite right, you don't get the impression this is a fantasy world, but a movie about a fantasy world. Nothing about the movie is very immersive, and you know you're watching a story every step of the way. Your Highness further wears out all the latest Hollywood cliches though: Action Girl Who's Better Than the Boys, Honorable Good Guy Who Learns to Loosen Up, The Stupid Man, and so on.

Every time the characters have dialogue of this type (even or perhaps especially when if they try to "medievalize" it such as this effort: "You are making a fool of yourself. Handle your #@!&, Fabious, please.") you can see the writers winking at you: don't take this seriously, don't buy into this, its all just a joke.

I get that Your Highness is meant to be a joke, but it could have been funny without ramming modern colloquialisms and idioms into the mouths of people allegedly from long ago in a different land.

Its as if someone wrote a Boyz 'n' The Hood type movie and had the characters spout folksy hillbilly jargon or geek talk. All the sudden its not a movie about urban black youth, its a farce you shouldn't take seriously at all.

Which is, I suppose, what happens to more serious writing when you inject overused cliches such as "thinking out of the box" or completely improper acronyms such as ROFL. You aren't 14 and this isn't a text message.

On a final note, take a look at Orwell's suggested banned words. George Orwell, over fifty years ago, told people to not use the word "utilize." He's right, it is pretentious and unnecessary. The word "use" is four letters shorter and doesn't sound like you're trying to sound important. Sometimes I wish the use of some words were painful, like an anti-bark dog collar.


Tom Dickson-Hunt said...

Meh. I've seen many recommendations for lists of words that you should not use in writing, and while I agree with some of them the majority I disagree with. I tend to write in such a way that I like the sound of the result, and that sort of writing, for me, does include, at least, many of the words Orwell labels 'pretentious diction' or 'meaningless'. In particular, I often use longer words than strictly necessary because they either provide nuances of meaning that the shorter words do not or they provide a different, and good, feeling or mood for the piece.

Christopher Taylor said...

I have to agree, and I think there's a tension between the more precise, specific word and the more easily understood, comfortable word in all writing.

My vocabulary is significantly larger than the average American and I'm so used to it sometimes I forget that words like calumny were once unknown to me. As a result I'll tend to use words that aren't in common use, but are more appropriate to the

But overall I think Orwell's rules are good advice, particularly for the more pretentious and self-important writers. I am pretty sure he was writing to academics and students, so you can sympathize with why he came up with the rules.

Philip said...

A pity that journalists and pundits generally don't follow these rules.

lance said...

"Your Highness" is just flat a bad movie. It made me sad inside and I am pretty sure that every time someone sees it an angel kills a puppy.