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Words to write by

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. X’s 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 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 in so far 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 that 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 likeMarshal Pétain 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.


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 at 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-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

– Communist pamphlet

[Critique of example 4 above:] 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 prose, the worst thing one can do with words is 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 until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. 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 and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions 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 us 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 barbarous.

The passages above are excerpted from George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language“. George Orwell was a reputed crank but he makes some good points. One of my pet peeves about the left is that it tends to indulge in shortcuts in writing that come off sounding like the communist pamphlet in the example shown above. I don’t mean that lefty writers are communists. I only mean that sometimes words are used without much consideration for their actual meaning. For example, what exactly is the meaning of the word “corporatist”? Does it refer to someone who owns a corporation, runs a corporation, has the means to use a corporation for his or her own ends? Does it refer to someone who works for a corporation? Are corporations always evil? And how does accusing a person of corporatism advance the cause of the writer? It may seem obvious to the left who are throwing this word around but what purpose does it serve if it is defined so generally that it can be applied to every instance of bad behavior? And if corporatism is so evil that we must prevent it at any cost, why use the word repeatedly without exploring the roots of what causes it?

I’ll admit that I am also a crank. And I could use an editor. My verbs and nouns don’t often agree, grammatical constructs are frequently written in “stream of consciousness” mode, and I write once, correct infrequently. Maybe that’s because I never feel the result will match my own expectations. Why try to correct something that will never be perfect enough? But then, I am not a professional writer, or a male blogger who has a better shot at scoring a gig at some prestigious online journal.

But one thing I try not to do is obscure my thoughts with shortcuts and the preferred vocabulary of my political group. I get particularly irritated with writers who live by their reputations who are starting to sound like the annoying peasant from the autonomous collective in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. As Orwell says, the result sounds like the thoughts are choked an accumulation of tea leaves blocking a sink. Sometimes, I get to the end of an essay and I have no idea what the writer was trying to say. It sounds forceful enough but in what direction?

Writers from all political ideologies do it but it seems to be particularly injurious to writers on the left. We can speculate why this is the case but maybe it would be better to just adopt Orwell’s rules for political writing to see if it improves our image.

Just sayin’.

For more crankiness on the importance of precision in language, read “Less Than Words Can Say” by Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian. This book was required reading in one of my writing courses many years ago. The man was a prophet.

21 Responses

  1. I thought “corporatist” just meant an approach to public policy, where the government can’t simply do a thing for the public good, but must pay some (politically connected) corporation to do it. Of course, the for-profit corporation will overcharge and skim another few percentage points off the top, but that’s how our “free market” economy works, and besides, who cares since the taxpayer is picking up the tab. See the recent health insurance law for an example of why everyone but Obama-zombies hates corporatism.

    • That sounds like ‘privatization’ to me, which may be a part of corporatism. But the people who use corporatism the most seem to imply that it is a political system. So, is a person who works for a corporation guilty of corporatism? You might see where this is important since so many Americans do work for them. If you’re going to throw that word around without clarification, you might make a lot of enemies who are NOT in the boardrooms. I’d urge caution.

      • So you’re worried about optics? Are you a political strategist? I doubt anyone hates corporations quite like their employees.

        • I’m not sure you should make that assumption. Do you think autoworkers hated GM? They probably had disagreements with management and for sure there is an adversarial relationship between the unions and the executives.
          But try to make a car without a corporation. Same with cancer drugs.

  2. From the quote:

    The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.

    The same now goes for “Nazism” … and for “Racism”? Words that are “hurled” at random at people who don’t agree with you to a degree where their actual meaning gets lost.

    As a young man tries to explain Socialism – or Socilism as he spells it – in Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary on John McCain’s 2008 campaign “Right America Feeling Wronged – Some voices from the Campaign Trail”:

    “Okay! So! Socialism – it’s basically like the views of … of Hitler. It’s, it’s … it’s the in-between bet… eh … it’s like between communism and err … I can’t … I don’t know what the other word is but between … it’s like the medium between two views. Between communism and another view, but I don’t know exactly what that is.”

    So do you laugh at or cry over this confused kid? At least I know that the intention of Monty Python is to make me laugh. They rarely ever miss(ed).

    And my pet peeve is people conflating, knowingly or not, Social Democracy with Democratic Socialism. No, social does not equal socialism. And no, socialism is hardly ever democratic. (So, I got that off my chest. 😉 )

  3. Thanks to you Riverdaughter and all my The Confluence buddies, who helped me heal and grow during these last three, turbulent years. PUMA power.

  4. for sure we were lost .
    and R.D. gave us a home to come to.
    thanks R.D.

  5. Thanks for being here, RD! Not only do you write well, you know when to insert an appropriate Monty Python skit!

    I think some using the term “corporatist” mean the same thing as “crony capitalist,” but I am not sure. It may be they are (rightfully in my view) object to those who view corporations as persons, almost equal in rights to human beings. I agree that corporations are necessary to modern business practice. In fact, I like them, generally. But I do not agree with the Supreme Court that they should have equal (or better) rights to (than) people, who can be sick, hungry, bleed or be jailed, as corporations cannot. Specifically I do not believe corporations should have the right to give unlimited political donations to candidates. I prefer they be allowed to give nothing.

    But perhaps someone who regularly uses the term should explain. (I know they are out there….)


    • So, you’ve described your opposition to corporations enjoying the same legal rights as a person much better than most of the commenters and posters of lefty blogs. I happen to agree with you.
      This is the difference between throwing around words that become meaningless and thinking things through. One of the reasons I think Hillary was so unpopular to the left is because as early as august 2007, party operatives had stuck the “corporatist” label on her. Funny how that never stuck to Obama and he turned out to be much more sympathetic to their mouthpieces.
      The left never looked past the label.

    • This is pretty much also my understanding of the term and how I would use it.

  6. Language has separated from its referent and refers only to itself. We are so used to thinking that table refers to that piece of furniture in our apartment, house, that we eat at, that our computer sits on etc. And this is precisely where we get into trouble and our thinking gets all muddied up. In The Order of Things Foucault takes the referent apart, and shows us how the Dominating Discourse controls what it said, who says it, how it is said, where it is said, when it is said, and why. The fundamentals of the formulation of Discourse contains its own oppositions in the fundamentals, so opposing views are part of it. No escape. Marcuse uses the metaphor of Pac-Man to explain how all opposites are embraced and used to make the system stronger. This is how Obama fooled so many. And now that we are feet first in simulation – hyperreality – language as information circulates democratically, equally, without a prayer of proving true or false, good or bad, or any other opposites. Just constantly floating information in cyberspace just like numbers on a screen for the currency traders, numbers having no referent to money, value, prices, or real products or commodities. Just numbers like the roulette wheel in Vegas. Money floats. Please read Cosmopolis.

  7. Tony Wikrent has a fine article on the new economy here, partly about the history of corporations.

    Does “try to make a car without a corporation” iimply that only corporations (and as currently configured) can manage large enterprises? I’m not sure that’s so. I don’t see a reason, for example, by banks (at least for boring banking like mortgages, student loans, and car loans) shouldn’t be regulated public utilities. And one might answer “try to make health care WITH corporation” (or least a network of corporations).

    • I’m glad we’re finally talking about this word. One of these days, I’ll relate the experience I had at yearlyKos 2007 the day after the presidential forum that will illustrate where the tendency to thoughtlessly label things and people goes seriously off the rails.
      Do I think a large enterprise is necessary to assemble a car? I don’t know but I suspect that workers are much better protected in a corporate setting than not precisely because the distinct nature of the enterprise gives workers something to push against.
      When you’re just a contractor, this is much more difficult.

  8. Hmm…

    The short description for “Corporatism” on my computer is..

    [Control of state or organization by large interest groups.]

    So, I assume a “corporatist” would adhere to that ideology.

    Though the words are similar, “corporation” is different…

    [A company or group of people authorized to act as a single entity ( Legally a single person) and recognized as such under law.]

    The word “corporatist” annoys me because its use acknowledges and condones the power and legality of the faceless corporation in a “Johnny Mnemonic” society. Netroots bought into the idea big time and I think they were led. We have been fed this idea for a very long time, and still today, in children’s cartoons, we are fighting faceless machines that reassemble at will. We invoke the heroic warrior and no one is really hurt.

    We don’t really attack the source of problem either.

    Corporations are led by individuals. Individuals bleed and die. Corporations just reassemble and the individuals remain.

    That’s why as a lefty, sometimes writer, I prefer “oligarchy” (and those who ascribe)…

    [A small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution.]

  9. RD, I think that you are a superb stylist. There are many occasions when we do not agree, but as a wordsmith, you are far better than most professional political writers.

    Orwell was not a crank. He wrote the finest political essays ever produced by an English writer. His actions during the Spanish war were both exemplary and harrowing.

    Sadly, he besmirched his reputation when, toward the end of his life, he veered toward McCarthyism. For example, he secretly denounced Charlie Chaplin as a “communist” in secret communication with his contact in spook-world. I suspect a honeytrap of sorts. It’s a long story, best not told here.

    Left-wing writing has always brimmed with empty phrases and pseudo-hip jargon. That’s the curse of the left. Liberals always strive to prove their shmartness and righties always strive to sound like Rambo.

    So what do you think Mussolini meant when he said “Fascism is corporatism”? I may have to write a post about that.

    I conducted a long interview with Richard Mitchell back in my college days. We kept in touch for a while afterward. Wonderful man. Okay, he really was something of a crank — you should have heard him talk about sand dabs — but he was a very lovable one.

    A fellow Mahlerite, as well. He advised me to learn German to understand GM better. I should have, but didn’t.

    • George Orwell understood factionalism and communism from the inside. I’m tempted to cut the poor guy a break. Stalin was a bad guy.

    • “Left-wing writing has always brimmed with empty phrases and pseudo-hip jargon. ” Oh, ain’t that the truth. I recently read an American feminist blogger accuse French feminists of colonialism and erasing women of colors’ experiences just because they protested an virulent outbreak of sexism with the phrase We Are All Chambermaids. *What?* Jeezus. FAIL.

  10. R@cist is the new communist. Thanks, “progressives”, for draining a serious word of all meaning.

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