In his novel 1984  George Orwell describes how a totalitarian state may suppress its citizens by reducing their vocabulary and by redefining certain concepts, thus words like terrible, abhorrent, and evil are replaced by one single expression: double-plus-ungood.

But even if most people disagree strongly with this obvious unjust measure, many of them restrict their vocabulary voluntarily - or, rather, involuntarily - as they do not pay attention to what the say and write.

Young people today tend to express themselves in a limited vocabulary, and the influx of new words, especially from (computer) technology, i.e. nouns for new inventions, does not compensate for the general loss of vocabulary in their speech and writing.

On the other side of the coin there's the language used by the academia  where not only unnecessary Latinization, but also pompous yet hollow expressions inflate the language to such an extent that the meaning escapes the reader (and probably the writer as well).

In his essay  Language and Propaganda  (from 1946) Orwell quotes a verse from Ecclesiastes (9:11) :

"I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, not yet riches to the men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all"

which in Orwell's translation into "modern pseudo-academic English" becomes:

"Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurable with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

What happens is that the speaker/writer "gums together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else [to make] the result presentable by sheer humbug. Thus it is easier - even quicker, once you have the habit - to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that  than to say  I think.  If you use ready-made sentences, you not only don't have to hunt about for words; you also don't have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious."  Instead of expressing a thought by means of words, the words are expressing the writer's mind for him.  Sometimes such a phrase is used to save the writer's previous effort from being banal or trivial: a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind", or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent.

By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms the writer saves himself mental effort, but at the cost of making his meaning vague.  The sole aim of a metaphor is to conjure up a visual image, but when mixed metaphors clash, it reveals that the writer is not seeing a mental image - in plain words: he is not really thinking, but letting his mind run idle.

NB some dead metaphors are OK (e.g. iron resolution) in the sense that they have become ordinary words in themselves, but others have lost their evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of thinking.

Here are some phrases (all from Orwell's essay) that are household phrases, yet all near empty of meaning or too commonplace to express any direct meaning:

stand shoulder to shoulder with
play into the hands of
no axe to grind
fishing in troubled waters
on the agenda
Achilles' heel
swan song
hammer and anvil (often misunderstood: the anvil doesn't break, the hammer does)
render inoperative
make contact with
be subjected to
give rise to
give grounds for
have the effect that
play a leading part (role) in
make itself felt
take effect
exhibit a tendency to
serve the purpose of
melting pot
acid test
veritable inferno
... (and many more)

Specific verbs (like break, stop, spoil, or mend ) are replaced by general-purpose verbs such as:  prove, serve, form, play, and render; and simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by: with respect to, having regard to, in view of, in the interests of , on the hypothesis that.  Often the ends of sentences are inflated by
commonplaces like:

greatly to be desired
cannot be left out of consideration
a development to be expected in the near future
deserving of serious consideration
brought to a satisfactory conclusion

Unfortunately, many examiners of academic essays prefer the Latinized humbug to plain English.  In a recent test two groups of students were asked to express the very same ideas in two ways: in plain English and in a pretentious style.  Unfortunately, most examinators graded the inflated essays higher than the other half.

The problem for foreign students of English is how are they to know that phrases like the above are stale and to be avoided in good writing?  They are stock phrases and thus "good" English, aren't they?  We all learn from listening to native speakers (and from the printed word), and if our models are humbug it takes a lot of courage to stray from what seems to be the accepted way of writing, especially when we are supposed to write a detached, unemotional essay about literature.

To support them in their search for a clear diction, Orwell wants all students of English (natives and foreigners alike) to ask themselves the following questions before writing:

What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Could I put it more shortly?

He sets up six rules for good writing (to avoid stale or mixed images, prefabricated phrases, needless repetition, and humbug and vagueness generally):

(i)    Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to
        seeing in print.
(ii)   Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii)  If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv)  Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v)   Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think
        of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi)  Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Some say that language reflects culture, and they are probably right although it may be difficult to argue the case convincingly.  But if our civilization is decadent, why shouldn't our language suffer the same collapse into form before contents?

The difference between Orwell's dystopia described in 1984  and today's society is probably only that the change has come about voluntarily, i.e. without any other "oppression" than the one we have put on ourselves when not paying attention to what we are saying.  This, in fact, makes Orwell's prediction even more frightening since it displays a general wearing down of values.

The meaning should choose the word.  When we think of an object, we think wordlessly, and when describing it we hunt around till we find the word(s) that will fit our visual image.  When thinking of something abstract, we use words from the start - the problem is to choose the words needed, not simply accept  the ones offered by a trend.  Idle reproduction of prefabricated phrases to impress one's listeners is not the right way to go about it.

Which phrases in my diction in the above essay should be replaced by plain English?

February 2001,
Erik Moldrup