Cliché is the box food of language; plus, Orwell on abstract words

Kraft Mac & Cheese boxLast time I looked at how children are often better poets than teens or adults because they haven’t yet mastered the usual, clichéd ways of expressing oneself. Today I want to look (briefly) at how language shapes thought. George Orwell considers this in “Politics and the English Language,” which is mostly about language as propaganda, but which also offers provocative advice for writers:

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.

Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.

But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(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.

[I added paragraph breaks to the above for ease of on-screen reading. – DLB]

The most important idea here, I think, isn’t just that clichéd language is lazy writing, or that it can cover up lazy thinking, but that language itself shapes thought, often in ways that escape notice. When we speak or write, we naturally assume that we are in control, unaware how easily “the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you.”

Maybe it’s just because it’s getting close to suppertime as I write this, but I think Orwell is talking about cooking from scratch. Cliché, using the word broadly, is the pre-packaged box food of language. It’s easy, but what’s really in it? Box-food language comes loaded with preservatives and hidden assumptions buried in the way it labels or categorizes, in the vague or potentially misleading ways it describes things.

It is, of course, impossible to begin always from first principles and write without assumptions. To quote Carl Sagan (out of context), “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Mmm, pie. Even that mac & cheese is starting to sound good. But back to the point, We can’t help but make assumptions, and we can’t help but borrow other people’s ideas that we haven’t fully examined for ourselves. That’s part of what it is to live in a culture. We are people of our times. But if we examine our words, rather than surrendering to them, we move closer to the ideal of really thinking, really speaking our own thoughts, and maybe even saying something that others find new and worthwhile.


6 thoughts on “Cliché is the box food of language; plus, Orwell on abstract words

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      This raises an interesting question: to what degree are religious believers’ ideas shaped by traditional gendered language? In other words, aside from any specific doctrine in any faith’s religious texts, does simply referring to God as “he” affect the characteristics that believers attribute to God? I suppose that touches on the larger question of whether gender bias in language is a cause or an effect or both. I would guess both. I imagine there’s been a lot of research on this, but I’m not familiar with it.

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  2. Mary Avidano

    I used to think that inclusive language was nothing but a matter of equal time or fairness to women, who–if the truth be told–have bigger battles to fight. I thought it a bit silly to “mess with” the words of, say, beloved church hymns– in the interests of gender-free language. I would be present in church gatherings in which some would sing quite loudly the word God wherever the word Lord appeared in the text. Eventually it dawned on me that to have a gender, One must have a body. As to your question, David, it is very interesting to think about what we ordinarily consider masculine or feminine attributes of God.

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