The Left’s corruption of language is intentional
In discussions of the decadeslong war on the English language, invocations of George Orwell’ s 1984 are plentiful. This is a mistake. The go-to invocation should be his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. It’s a more germane, and decidedly less cliche, point of reference insofar as the topic of acceptable public discourse is concerned.
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” Orwell correctly noted in his essay.
Politics is especially relevant today as the more liberal elements of society continue to rewrite the English language to accommodate their personal, and constantly evolving, preferences, pledging consequences for those who refuse to comply.
Though it is tempting to laugh off, say, Cambridge Dictionary’s decision to expand its definitions of the words “man” and “woman” to match current liberal orthodoxy, Orwell argued the modern twisting and confusing of the language is often indicative of something far more dangerous. Indeed, he writes, the “decay of language” is connected to “political chaos.”
“All issues are political issues,” Orwell wrote, “and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”
As recently as March 2022, Cambridge Dictionary defined the word “woman” simply as “an adult female human being” and the word “man” as “an adult male human being.” In October of last year, however, Cambridge revised its definitions to include for “woman” the addendum, “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth,” and for “man” the addendum, “an adult who lives and identifies as male though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.”
The addendums are not complementary additions to the original definitions — that is, “an adult male human being,” etc. Rather, they mystify the point. They are circular and imprecise. The addendums diminish the clarity offered by the original definitions. They do nothing by way of offering insight or specificity. They offer inexactitude, confusion — chaos, even, of the kind Orwell warned about.
Cambridge is at once telling us a “woman” is “an adult female human being” but also an adult who “lives and identifies as female.” And what is a “female,” according to Cambridge? Answer: “Belonging or relating to women.” But what does “woman” mean? It means “an adult female human being” and “an adult who lives and identifies as female.”
We are no closer to a clean and coherent definition than when we first started, which is to say, Cambridge Dictionary has ceased to serve its core function.
The deterioration of the language , the type of abuse we see in Cambridge’s reworking of certain definitions, reflects a deeper societal chaos. Rather than view the politically motivated reworking of definitions as a curious oddity, we should view it as a sign of a deeper cultural unrest, one that will worsen proportionally with the degrading of the language, as the latter encourages more of the former.
“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,” Orwell noted. “But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and soon indefinitely. … [The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
“Ugly” and “inaccurate” are apt descriptors for certain style choices newsrooms have adopted in recent years, many of which were made in the name of “inclusion” and “intersectionality.”
Since the 1970s, for example, the Associated Press has instructed staffers to avoid using the pronoun “her” when referring to “nations, storms, or ships.”
“Use ‘it’ instead,” the newsgroup’s Stylebook recommends.
America’s institutions are failing it.
This formulation is ugly. It is flat and sterile. It does not convey a simple idea coherently or with any amount of color or imagination. Whom or what, exactly, does this style guidance serve? Not the English language. Not the reader. But it does honor niche political pieties, and according to today’s censors, this is all that matters.
Speaking of newsrooms surrendering their ability to communicate well, Politico experienced internal turmoil in 2021 after it published a report labeled “offensive” and “transphobic” by its staffers, according to Amber Athey. The employees took umbrage specifically with the article’s use of the term “biological female” to refer to, well, a biological female who identifies now as a man. Rather than advocate on behalf of precise and clear language, Politico instead hosted a company seminar led by transgender activists. The purpose of the event was to educate newsroom staffers on transgender issues in a “more comprehensive and inclusive way.” During the seminar, the panelists told reporters the word “mother” may cause offense to certain readers. The panelist said the term “biological male” is an “anti-trans slur.” The panelists also mocked reporters who, correctly, noted the “they/them” pronoun formulation makes for completely unintelligible sentences.
The seminar appears to have had a lasting effect: Politico staffers are said to have grappled recently with the question of whether it is safer to say “birthing people” versus “birthing moms” because the latter may be seen as offensive. Moreover, Politico issued a style guide in January 2022 instructing staffers to avoid using certain “noninclusive” words, including “mankind,” “man-made,” “manhunt,” “cake walk,” and “peanut gallery.”
“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,” Orwell wrote. “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.”
Nowhere today is this clearer than in the deployment of the — ahem — Orwellian euphemism “gender-affirming medical care,” which refers to the process by which children are prescribed body-altering puberty blockers, hormone therapies, and sexual reconstruction surgeries. Or consider the term “abortion rights,” so ubiquitous and popular within major newsrooms. Abortion is not, in fact, a “right,” though the popular newsroom euphemism suggests otherwise.
There are those, particularly on the Right, who see this issue as beside the point, a silly battle over words and style. They are free to believe this, but they do so at their own peril. Their opponents certainly do not see the harnessing of language as a trivial matter. Indeed, based on their fierce insistence that entire societies adopt their preferred terms and phrases, one gets the distinct impression that the liberal side of the speech debate (correctly) understands the power that comes with shaping the language. By controlling what can and cannot be said, one may twist the discourse to one’s benefit, all while obscuring true motives, genuine beliefs, and even horrifying realities.
“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 the political parties,” Orwell wrote.
He added, “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. … Such [sleight of hand] 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.’”
Luckily, Orwell concluded, “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 toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
Refuse to comply. Adhere to only the highest standards of specificity and clarity. Do not surrender clean and concise language to the demands of those who hide their true motives and beliefs behind safe and sanitary-sounding euphemisms. To allow corruption of language is to allow corruption of thought.
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Becket Adams is a columnist for National Review and the Washington Examiner. He is also the program director of the National Journalism Center.