The arguments against euphemism in George Orwell’s essay account inadequately for how we must guard ourselves against offensive terminology in the 21st Century. This piece was written in the mid twentieth century and some of the author’s assertions do not hold water today.
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Illustrations from the passage
At some point, Orwell (par 13) discusses the proliferation of meaningless words in literature and art. He claims that artists tend to overuse certain words to the point of making them meaningless. Examples cited here include ‘living quality’ and ‘peculiar deadness’. In modern times, one can question this argument owing to the respectability accorded to users of such terms. In poetry, plays and other forms of literature, writers deliberately use these so-called meaningless words moderately. The overall effect is an added beauty to literary pieces that endears them to readers.
The author criticizes the use of readymade phrases because they are a sign of laziness. Users, writers or politicians may easily be spared from thinking in their writings if they use them because these kinds of phrases already have preset meanings. At the end of it all, such writings end up being ambiguous and even ugly (Orwell, par 19). For example instead of using the word “I think” some politicians would rather use the readymade phrase “in my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that..” (Orwell, par 19). While this argument may seem plausible, one must consider the extreme end of the scale. If a writer or speaker was to be entirely logical and concise, his writing or speech would be dismissed as boring and lifeless. A literary piece that contains only simple words would not elicit a lot of reaction from audiences because people are naturally attracted to doses of rare diction.
Orwell (par 23) believes that insincerity is an obstacle to the use of clear language. He claims that most people would prefer hiding their true intentions through the use of long idioms and words. He affirms that when two political groups disagree, the easiest option is always to hide behind these euphemisms. These assertions may be partly true but they are rather sweeping.
Orwell (23) has not considered the possibility of satire or deliberate drivel. Some authors may achieve clear writing but still be insincere; others may simply choose to deceive. The story ‘Peter Pan’ consists of very unrealistic claims but it is still quite clear. Also, certain narrations may lie to audiences in order to cause them to use their wit. Not all writings have to be sincere but they must be clear. As such, Orwell’s argument against euphemism may not be appropriate in such cases.
In the short essay, Orwell (29) believes that this poor use of euphemisms is curable if society makes it unfashionable to use pretentious words. He even cites examples of phrases that were slowly removed from the English language because of their inappropriateness. The author therefore argues that some euphemisms are silly while others are pretentious (such as the use of Greek words in English) so they should be eliminated through conscious efforts.
However, all these cases brought out against euphemisms have one thing in common; they are advocating for a simplification of grammar. Because of practical purposes, human beings tend to complicate language. For example, when trying to describe something new, one would need to use of an old phrase; metaphors usually start out like this. Even the author himself acknowledged that language is context based and its development will therefore depend upon a set of external factors that prevent simplification.
The author’s opposition to euphemism is inadequate because euphemisms in the 21st century beautify language, cause speeches to become attractive to audiences, encourage the use of wit and are practical.
Orwell George. Politics And The English Language. Published in Horizon, 1946; Modern British Writing ed. Denys Val Baker, 1947.