Is this 2016 or '1984'? George Orwell was a prophet

Is this 2016 or '1984'? George Orwell was a prophet

I'd been meaning to read "1984" by George Orwell (published by Harcourt, Inc. in 1949) since early in the actual 1980s. But I got scared off, deterred by the writing and reading I had assigned to me back then, and didn't get around to it. I carefully called my 1984 diary "the real 1984," and I think I'll go back to that now that I've read Orwell's version.

The story of Winston Smith's life in totalitarian Oceania (specifically its capital, London) is frightening, especially because it can still be read as a prophetic warning about what's happening -- not only to our government, but to our language.

The Appendix to the book, "The Principles of Newspeak," was familiar. I hope it's just because I'd read it in a writing class, but I fear that it's because so many of the principles are coming into use. For a defender of Standard English ("Oldspeak," to Orwell) like me, it is a call to action.

Newspeak -- the governmental language which is being developed to replace Oldspeak -- is difficult to read, so I followed a footnote back to the Appendix to learn about it before going on with the early part of the book. As Orwell wrote,

"It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050."

We're getting there, George, every time we ignore an old word or decide it doesn't really matter how exactly we use a word. Oh, you know what I mean... don't you?

"The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc" (English Socialism), "but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought -- that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc -- should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words."

"Political correctness," its very name an abomination against the First Amendment to the Constitution, owes a great deal to Orwell's Newspeak. The people who call handicaps "differences in ability" and poverty "economic disadvantage" are using Newspeak -- and they don't even seem to know it.

Another of Orwell's descriptions of Newspeak reads like a prophecy. Vocabulary was strictly controlled, as were the meanings of words, which were as few as possible:

"This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by stripping such words as remained of undesirable meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever."

Don't tell me I can't write more about this. Nobody is watching me -- yet.

Orwell described Newspeak's grammar this way:

"The grammar of Newspeak had two outstanding peculiarities. The first of these was an almost complete interchangeability between different parts of speech. Any word in the language... could be used either as verb, noun, adjective or adverb.

"The word thought, for example, did not exist in Newspeak. Its place was taken by think, which did duty for both noun and verb.

"Adjectives were formed by adding the suffix -ful to the noun-verb, and adverbs by adding -wise."

"Uncold meant 'warm,' while pluscold and doublepluscold meant, respectively, 'very cold' and 'superlatively cold.'"

OK, that doesn't sound too familiar yet. But Orwell continues:

"By such methods it was found possible to bring about an enormous diminution of vocabulary. Given, for instance, the word good, there was no need for a word such as bad, since the required meaning was equally well -- indeed, better -- expressed by ungood. All that was necessary, in any case where two words formed a natural pair of opposites, was to decide which of them to suppress."

Auuugh! But he did mention two peculiarities, so here is the other:

"The second distinguishing mark of Newspeak grammar was its regularity. Subject to a few exceptions which are mentioned below, all inflections followed the same rules. Thus, in all verbs the preterite and the past participle were the same and ended in -ed. The preterite of steal was stealed, the preterite of think was thinked, and so on through the language, all such forms as swam, gave, brought, spoke, taken, etc., being abolished."

So yes, words MATTER! But they can matter for disgusting reasons. According to Orwell,

"But the special function of certain Newspeak words, of which oldthink was one, was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them. These words, necessarily few in number, had had their meanings extended until they contained within themselves whole batteries of words which, as they were sufficiently covered by a single comprehensive term, could now be scrapped and forgotten. The greatest difficulty facing the compilers of the Newspeak dictionary was not to invent new words, but, having invented them, to make sure what they meant: to make sure, that is to say, what ranges of words they canceled by their existence."

Ranges of canceled words digust me as a writer and a thinker.

But there is one thing that reassures me about the "Principles of Newspeak." That's the use of the past tense. The preterites were, the word oldthink was one word used, and so on -- all in the past, in Orwell's text. Let's keep them that way. If you're not sure of the exact meaning of a word, look it up -- save the distinction. Use exactly the words you mean. Make a liar out of George Orwell.

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  • Great post! Eloquent and powerful, and beautifully written.

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thank you. But of course, I had help in the writing department. It was a challenge to my editing skills to select the quotations I wanted.

  • "The first of these was an almost complete interchangeability between different parts of speech. Any word in the language... could be used either as verb, noun, adjective or adverb." That is familiar now. Take corporate speak, where grow is a transitive verb. Some car is the most awarded, even though nobody awarded me a Chevy. We had the debate a couple of months ago about dropping ly from adverbs.

    "Uncold meant 'warm,' while pluscold and doublepluscold meant, respectively, 'very cold' and 'superlatively cold.'" Again, typical in legal writing, such as "not unconscionable" and definitely "not unreasonable." Also in grocery ads, such as "not available in all stores." If not available in all stores, why did you advertise it? I take it it means not available in any. The correct exposition is "Liquor not available at 763 E. 162nd St. in South Holland."

    The easier manner of spelling was advocated by Col. McCormick, and forgotten about 50 years ago. However, your mentions of forms of past tense goes back to a joke on "you can get scrod in Boston" (a verb form, not a fish), and another scatological conjugation (is it -ted or substitute an a for the i? I was told it depended on whether the word was of French or German origin. This avoids such doubt.)

  • In reply to jack:

    That's a good point about grocery ads, Jack. The clearer version would be "not available in some stores." Meanwhile, "not available in any stores" is (arguably) close to "not available in all stores" -- both mean that not one store has whatever we're writing about.

  • Yet you all support the biggest Orwellian nightmares (Clintons/Obamas) since the term was invented.

    Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave' comes to mind.

    Carry on. #omitted

  • In reply to 4zen:

    Sorry, 4zen, but you've missed my presidential endorsement -- for None of the above. I don't support the nightmares you mention, I get them!

  • In reply to 4zen:

    P.S. The comparison between Plato and Orwell is a good one... really (wink).

  • I see that 4drumpf has made a reappearance, WITHOUT reading prior episodes.

    In the meantime Pearls Before Swine is on point today.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks, Jack. I reminded 4zen (above) about which "episode" to read.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I'll mention another in the "ly" debate that gets my craw "Miller Lite. Spelled Different. Brewed Different."

    Miller lost the trademark case that Lite as a misspelling could be trademarked. Maybe corporate thinks bad grammar is trademarkable.

  • In reply to jack:

    I don't know whether it's considered trademarkable, Jack, but I consider bad grammar irresponsible. How many people are going to tell teachers or bosses "But I saw it that way on TV" in support of their errors?

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