28 October 2010

Catechism of cliché: Salmond edition...

I often find myself torn about the influence of Orwell's essay, Politics and the English language. In it, he argues that:

"Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers."

Generally, the political content tends to be sidelined, with folk focussing primarily on the styles of writing Orwell makes it his business to bash. He hammers the use of dying metaphors which have parted company with their original meanings, false limbs, pretentious diction, meaningless words, and ends with this oft-quoted section:

"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 or sensations. Afterwards 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 barbarous."

As regular readers will know, this is a dictum I take care not to follow in my own scribblings. As I understand him, Orwell is assailing a number of things, but first and foremost prose - often scholarly prose - which is flashy and obscurantist, concealing rather than illuminating. I admire clarity in writing, most likely because I've not much talent for producing it myself. I share his horror of the undead metaphor and the Frankenstein cliché. A while back, Iain Dale composed one of the most absurd examples of this I've seen in recent times - Darling's sleight of hand unravels. While the general sense of the sentence is clear enough - Alistair Darling at it, detected - reading the words as they're actually written suggests some sort of gruesome flaying process where the man's subtle fin spontaneously splits off into its constituent threads, leaving the end of his limb a sort of horrifying knot of floppy, fleshy spaghetti. However, I've often found Orwell's piece used as a dullard's-charter, giving those without imagination or style a reason to feel smug about their lifeless prose. Too often people assume if they write clearly and tediously, their sentences plodding along flat-footedly without interest or relief, they're being clear-minded. With this jealous ordinariness and assuming they are supported by the authority of Mr Orwell, they sniff at racier prose, mistaking being more boring for more clearminded. Their premises and axioms may be muddled, they may have neglected to think through half of their suppositions - but they mistake clarity in form for clarity in content. I can't imagine that Orwell would particularly approve of that. Appallingly obscure pieces of writing at least alienate the reader, giving them notice of the potential for concealed meanings and ambivalent understandings. There is no risk that their prose could be approached as a window pane. In contrast, writing which conforms to Orwell's scheme, it seems to me, has much the same and often more potential to beguile the reader, a false friend.

Let's focus on where we agree - the zombified metaphor, spliced like the hideous creation lurching through a Hammer horror film - which brings me toddling to the inspiration for this wee post this morning. As I noted the other day, in the limited free time I have available to me at the moment, I've been reading David Torrance's biography of Alex Salmond Against the Odds. As the Scotland on Sunday's Kenny Farquharson has noted, we can all regret that Torrance decided not to entitle his book following my own preference, Maximum Eck. We can only hope that Salmond avails himself of it, when he comes to publishing his own memoirs. I've been enjoying working my way along the historical threads in Torrance's work, the contests, oppositions, recriminations and reconciliations that, knitted together, form the SNP leadership as we know it today. Indeed enjoying it sufficiently that I can almost forgive Torrance for composing this appalling sentence that I'm sure would rile Orwell's dust:

"The final straw in the increasingly intense relationship between Sillars and Salmond, however, came to a head when the SNP decided to withdraw from ongoing cross-party talks concerning the Scottish Constitutional Convention..." (D Torrance 2010, Salmond: Against the Odds, p. 106.)

My guts momentarily spasmed with sickliness at this vision of a pustulating stalk, no doubt hanging threateningly over a particularly overburdened camel...


  1. "I admire clarity in writing, most likely because I've not much talent for producing it myself"

    Doubleplus ungood duckspeak Lallans ;¬)

  2. As always, all bellyfeelwise blackwhite observations gratefully received, Conan!

  3. I put my hands up, that is a dreadful sentence. It shall be removed in future editions...

  4. Fair play to you, Mr Torrance. As I say, I'm enjoying your work and will most likely scribble up a review addressing the piece in the round once I'm finished, rather than discussing it solely through this pernickety Orwellian lens.

  5. Please do, for some reasons it has resisted critical attention so far, barring Harry Reid in the Herald a few weeks ago.