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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: Channelling Orwell

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“Insincerity,” says George Orwell in his classic commentary of 70 years ago, is the “great enemy of clear language.” Political discourse is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable…”

For Orwell, insincerity was more a result of lazy writing than a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth: “…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

But in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, deceptions are deliberate.

The world has moved on since Orwell exposed doublespeak but, alas, not as he would have embraced. Insincerity is now typically intentional. Politicians use dog-whistle code to send messages heard only by a target audience. Recall Stephen Harper using old stock Canadians for people who weren’t immigrants. Meanwhile conservative Christians understand that the term family values excludes same-sex marriage.

Euphemism, the handmaiden of insincerity, afflicts commercial communication from press releases to annual reports and advertising (not that advertising was ever honest). Corporations feel they must focus on beguiling shareholders and customers.

Hence negative growth replaces shrinking profits, workforce adjustment jettisons layoffs and a major safety incident describes a fatal industrial accident. By the last example a terrorist attack could very well be reduced to a security lapse.

And where is the editor in all this? I find insincerity is off limits to our blue pencils. Unlike simple grammatical errors, which clients expect us to catch, disingenuous phrases get a free pass. Weasel words are inserted by people better paid and supposedly smarter than editors — spinmeisters, lawyers and accountants.

Most of us believe clarification is a major purpose of editing. Certainly it was in my newspaper work. Now if I reword a perplexing phrase, my advice is ignored. You learn to stay clear of no-go zones.

Mark Thompson, president of The New York Times Co., in his 2016 book1 about the decline of public language in politics, calls Orwell’s essay “the best-known and most influential reflection on public language written in English in the twentieth century.” Of today’s spectacle Thompson says: “The crisis in our politics is a crisis of political language.”

Orwell’s essay should be required reading for us all, even as more clients choose to ignore it.


Previous “Wasted Words” post: Surviving Overkill.

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1Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics?

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2 Comments on “Wasted Words: Channelling Orwell”

  • Anita Jenkins


    What you say is true, about being ignored when suggesting more sincere terms and phrases. I submit, though, that part of the editor’s job is to make noise and insist. I found I could win at least a few of the battles.

    I was always struck by a talk at an editors’ conference by a renowned book editor. Her theme was that editors are “the nice ones.” Well, maybe, if you are cosseting Mordecai Richler. But in government, business and other places, we should just get in there and arm wrestle those clients to the ground. Many will thank us afterwards, when they realize how we helped, and we probably need to fire the clients who don’t like it. They are beyond help.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      I think the big-name fiction and nonfiction authors deserve the same level of editing and editorial advice as the unknown ones. First, of course, you figure out what they are trying to do – and if they are deliberately doing something very creative or breaking all the rules to achieve a certain effect, so be it. In that case, work in their space. But if they haven’t clinched their point or got things in quite the right order, or are simply being wordy, do your editorial fix. Otherwise you’re not giving them the edit they deserve.

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