Prem Chandavarkar on Tue, 10 Feb 2004 11:22:59 +0100 (CET)

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RE: <nettime> Framing the issues: how conservatives use language to dominate politics

> An insightful interview with George Lakoff about the workings of
> framing aka
> strategical use of language in rightwing politics.

For a more general discussion on framing, language and politics see George
Orwell's essay (written in 1946) "Politics and the English Language"

                Politics and the English Language

                          George Orwell


Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the
English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we
cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is
decadent, and our language--so the argument runs--must inevitably
share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against
the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring
candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath
this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth
and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

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. I will come back to this presently, and I
hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have
become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English
language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are
especially bad--I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen--but
because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now
suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly
representative samples. I number them so that I can refer back to them
when necessary:

(1) "I am not, indeed, sure, whether it is not true to say that the
Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had
not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more
alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could
induce him to tolerate."
     - Professor Harold Laski (essay in _Freedom of Expression_)

(2) "Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery
of idioms which prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables as
the basic put up with for tolerate or put at a loss for bewilder."
     - Professor Lancelot Hogben (_Interglossa_)

(3) "On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is
not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such
as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional
approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another
institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is
little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous.
But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the
mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the
definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic?
Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality
or fraternity?"
     - Essay on psychology in _Politics_ (New York)

(4) "All the 'best people' from the gentlemen's clubs, and all the
frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and
bestial horror of the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement,
have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval
legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of
proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoisie to
chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary
way out of the crisis."
     - Communist pamphlet.

(5) "If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is
one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is
the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will
bespeak cancer and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be
sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion's roar at
present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's
Dream--as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot
continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of
the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly
masquerading as 'standard English.' When the Voice of Britain is heard
at nine o'clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear
aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated,
inhibited, school-ma'amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing
     - Letter in _Tribune_

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from
avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first
is staleness of imagery: the other is lack of precision. The writer
either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says
something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words
mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence
is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and
especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics
are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able
to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists
less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more
and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a
prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes and examples,
various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction
is habitually dodged:

Dying Metaphors

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image,
while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g.,
iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and
can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these
two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost
all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the
trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: ring the
changes on, take up the cudgels 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. Many of these are used
without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for instance?),
and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the
writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now
current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those
who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line
is sometimes written tow the line. Another example is the hammer and
the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets
the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the
hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what
he was saying would be aware of this, and would avoid perverting the
original phrase.

Operators, or Verbal False Limbs

These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and
at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it
an appearance of symmetry. 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, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of
simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop,
spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or
adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove,
serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever
possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are
used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining).
The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de-
formation, and the banal statements are given an appearance of
profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and
prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having
regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of,
on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved from
anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired,
cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the
near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a
satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.

Pretentious Diction

Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective,
categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute,
exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up
simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased
judgments. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic,
unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable,
are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics,
while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic
color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed
fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion.
Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus
ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung,
weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance.
Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no
real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in
English Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and
sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that
Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary
words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated,
clandestine, subaqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground
from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers. The jargon peculiar to
Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these
gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely
of words and phrases translated from Russian, German or French; but
the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root
with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation.
It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize,
impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentatory and so forth) than to
think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result,
in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

Meaningless Words

In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and
literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which
are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic,
plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used
in art criticism, are strictly meaningless in the sense that they not
only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever
expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, "The
outstanding feature of Mr. Xs work is its living quality," while
another writes, "The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is
its peculiar deadness," the reader accepts this as a simple difference
of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of
the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language
was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly
abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it
signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism,
freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several
different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the
case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition,
but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost
universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are
praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim
that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using
the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind
are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who
uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to
think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal
Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet Press is the freest in the
world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost
always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable
meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class,
totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let
me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This
time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to
translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst
sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

  "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, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to
   men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

Here it is in modern English:

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

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3), above, for
instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It
will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning
and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely,
but in the middle the concrete illustrations--race, battle,
bread--dissolve into the vague phrase "success or failure in
competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer
of the kind I am discussing--no one capable of using phrases like
"objective consideration of contemporary phenomena"--would ever
tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole
tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these
two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine
words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of
everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety
syllables: eighteen of its words are from Latin roots, and one from
Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one
phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second
contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its
ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning
contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of
sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to
exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of
simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still,
if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human
fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence
than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist
in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing
images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming
together long strips of words which have already been set in order by
someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The
attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is
easier--even quicker, once you have the habit--to say In my opinion it
is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use
ready-made phrases, 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. When you are composing in a hurry--when you are dictating
to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech--it is
natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a
consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion
to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from
coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms,
you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning
vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the
significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call
up a visual image. When these images clash--as in The Fascist octopus
has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting
pot--it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental
image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really
thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this
essay. Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in fifty-three words.
One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and
in addition there is the slip alien for akin, making further nonsense,
and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general
vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery
which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the
everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the
dictionary and see what it means. (3), if one takes an uncharitable
attitude towards it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work
out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which
it occurs. In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say,
but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves
blocking a sink. In (5), words and meaning have almost parted company.
People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional
meaning--they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with
another--but they are not interested in the detail of what they are
saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will
ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say?
What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask
himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything
that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this
trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and
letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct
your sentences for you--even think your thoughts for you, to a certain
extent--and at need they will perform the important service of
partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this
point that the special connection between politics and the debasement
of language becomes clear.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing.

Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is
some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party
line." Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless,
imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets,
leading articles, manifestoes, White Papers and the speeches of
under-secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they
are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid,
home-made turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the
platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases--bestial
atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the
world, stand shoulder to shoulder--one often has a curious feeling
that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a
feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light
catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which
seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful.
A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance
towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are
coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be
if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making
is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be
almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the
responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not
indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of
the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in
India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom
bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which
are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with
the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has
to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy
vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the
inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle
machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is
called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms
and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry:
this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.
People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of
the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is
called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed
if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of
them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor
defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe
in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing
so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

  "While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain
   features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we
   must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to
   political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of
   transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian
   people have been called upon to undergo have been amply
   justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin
words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and
covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is
insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared
aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted
idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no
such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political
issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred
and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must
suffer. I should expect to find--this is a guess which I have not
sufficient knowledge to verify--that the German, Russian and Italian
languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a
result of dictatorship.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A
bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who
should and do know better. The debased language that I have been
discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not
unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no
good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind,
are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's
elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find
that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting
against. By this morning's post I have received a pamphlet dealing
with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he "felt
impelled" to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the
first sentence that I see: "The Allies have an opportunity not only of
achieving a radical transformation of Germany's social and political
structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in
Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a
cooperative and unified Europe." You see, he "feels impelled" to
write--feels, presumably, that he has something new to say--and yet
his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves
automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one's
mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical
transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard
against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable.
Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all,
that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we
cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words
and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language
goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and
expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary
process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent
examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which
were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of
flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough
people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be
possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence, to reduce
the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out
foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make
pretentiousness unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The
defense of the English language implies more than this, and perhaps it
is best to start by saying what it does not imply.

To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging
of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a
"standard English" which must never be departed from. On the contrary,
it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom
which has outgrown its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct
grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes
one's meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with
having what is called a "good prose style." On the other hand it is
not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written
English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring
the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest
and shortest words that will cover one's meaning. What is above all
needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way
about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to 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 till you find the exact words that seem to
fit. 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 or sensations.
Afterwards one can choose--not simply accept-- the phrases that will
best cover the meaning, and then switch around and decide what
impression 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

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep
change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the
style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad
English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in
those five specimens at the beginning of this article.

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but
merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing
or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to
claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this
as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you
don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One
need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize
that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of
language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by
starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are
freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy You cannot speak any of the
necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity
will be obvious, even to yourself.

Political language--and with variations this is true of all political
parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists--is designed to make lies
sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of
solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one
can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can
even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless
phrase--some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test,
veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse--into the dustbin
where it belongs.

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