The Write Stuff
By Alan Crawford,
Hearing a Trump administration official say that John Bolton was “interfacing with reporters” sent me scrambling back to George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” This essay, published back in 1946, remains remarkably fresh and should be read for pleasure and profit by anyone who hopes to write clear and effective prose. (I just needed to dip into it to calm down.)
I’m not going to try to sum up all the useful points Orwell makes in this essay (read it yourself and you’ll thank me), but I’ll share a few. Phrases like render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, serve the purpose of are not only imprecise but verbose. They are also a kind of crutch that Orwell says saves “the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables.” They might sound impressive, at least to the writer, but they don’t do a thing to help her make her point.
Everyday conjunctions and prepositions are ditched in favor of such phrases as “with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, [and] in view of.”
I couldn’t say it better, so I won’t try: “Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin and Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, sub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from the Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.”
I can’t say whether interfacing with is Latin, Greek, Fortran or Martian, but I’m fairly certain it just means talking to. But talking to doesn’t sound nearly as important, does it?
Whatever the case, I’m glad Orwell wasn’t around to hear it.
ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH: Wackadoodle. Ben Zimmer in The Wall Street Journal writes: “‘Wackadoodle,’ also spelled as ‘whackadoodle,’ has emerged as a humorous label for someone or something that is eccentric at best or unhinged at worst.”
But how humorous can it be, really, when every other Washington pundit deploys it?
Wackadoodle is the new “kerfuffle,” a word trotted out repeatedly when people who aren’t very funny are trying to be — and almost always failing. David Brooks, an admirable columnist in many ways but who will never be mistaken for Oscar Wilde, has accused Marianne Williamson of having “wackadoodle ideas.” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who tries so hard to be funny he is going to hurt himself, has referred to the Trump’s administration’s “wackadoodle” ideas about free trade.
Can we please move on, people? Can we put this tiresome word out of its misery, consigning it to the graveyard of overworked attempts at columnar comedy, along with kerfuffle and — how I hate this one! — “clown car”?
Humor is in part a product of surprise, and using these words in an attempt to make people chuckle or even smile to themselves is no more surprising than saying “booya” or “yeah, baby.” Make it stop.
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The Write Stuff: September – ‘Verbal Kudzu’ Isn’t All Bad