There was once a book, one that I learned about in school. Granted, when I first went to school back in the 1960s, the world was a different place. While it was beginning to shift and change, language was still fairly static. That’s no longer the case.
George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, or 1984 in 1949, which compared to when I began school could be considered the Dark Ages. The name he was given at birth (in 1903) was Eric Blair. I bet you didn’t know that.
I used to have a blog called Words Matter. I named it that because when I was learning words and how to write them, they really did matter.
Orwell’s book had a profound effect on me when I first read it during my high school years, during the first term of a president named Reagan. I’ve subsequently read 1984 at least 15 times since then.
This morning the radio said that the University of New Hampshire, one of UMaine’s chief hockey rivals, had published a resource called the Bias-Free Language Guide. When I got home from work, I tried to find it on the interwebs and when I went to the link for the guide, it just took me to this generic “diversity” page. I later found out that the president of the university had requested that it be removed from the University of New Hamphire’s website on the interwebs. I was disappointed.
While stories like this one told me that the guide labeled words such as “American,” “homosexual,” “mailman,” “elders,” and “overweight” as problematic, I was hoping to view the document to see if there was some explanation. You see, these are all words that I use, both as a writer, and in my everyday speech. Writing and articulating is how I express myself. In fact, just the other night, I said to my wife, “I am overweight and I’m going to finally lose those 10 extra pounds I’ve been carrying around.” I’ve used “elders” publicly as a term of endearment for seniors, noting the word signified experience and even wisdom.
Of course, just like in Orwell’s prescient book, hate and censorship seem to be everywhere these days. And then, there are people trying to pass off politicized pieces like this one, as journalism, for a major American daily. Perhaps that’s why I’ve found the book to be one that continues speaking to me.
This passage, while written nearly 70 years ago, could have been written during our present time.
On page 45 (of my Signet Modern Classic version), Winston Smith, the book’s protagonist, is taking a lunch break during his work day at the Ministry of Truth. He runs into a colleague named Syme and they sit down at a table together in the canteen. Syme was the lexicographer who developed the language and dictionary of Newspeak. His job also involved destroying works. Syme would eventually be vaporized because he got on the wrong side of Big Brother. While orthodox politically, he was too smart for his own good—or too smart for the politically-correct Party types.
“How is the dictionary getting on?” said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.
“Slowly,” said Syme. “I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.”
The two exchange other pleasantries, while eating their bread and drinking the gin available. Syme speaks.
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is the opposite of some other words?”
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end, we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
We’re well on our way to that place.