Stop and Smell the Roses: Happy 120th Birthday George Orwell 

Orwell's childhood home in Lower Shiplake, Henley-on-Thames, where he lived from the age of 9-12—its name? Roselawn (Photo: Joyner)
Orwell's childhood home in Lower Shiplake, Henley-on-Thames, where he lived from the age of 9-12—its name? Roselawn (Photo: Joyner)

Today, June 25, is the 120th birthday of George Orwell, a man who fought against the abuse of language, the decline and fall of reason and the degradation of ideas that cloud our world. He also grew roses.

For fun, let’s look at a few examples of language abuse that would have infuriated George. Can you guess their meanings? (See Navigation for the answers. And please, fill the Comments with your favourites.)

  1. special military operation
  2. associated promotional message
  3. bioweapon
  4. terminological inexactitude
  5. soft credits
  6. decant our galleries

Here’s a quiz on truth decay for you. How many “verifiable untruths” did Trump average per day during his presidency according to factcheckers for The Washington Post? (You know where the answer is.)

“We took on debt so Canadians wouldn’t have to,” explained Justin Trudeau in July 2020. What did I miss? Do we have a deal with China, or some other country, to repay our debt? How about just our interest, which this year is estimated to be a mere $43.9 billion? 

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” 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.

Then there’s sex. 

How many conversations have you had with friends trying to figure out what non-binary means? How about gender-nonconforming? Not to pick on The Washing Post, it’s a great paper, but here’s the definition from its guide for journalists: “[it] refers to gender presentations outside typical gendered expectations. Note that gender nonconforming is not a synonym for non-binary. While many non-binary people are gender nonconforming, many gender nonconforming people are also cisgender.” About which Andrew Sullivan, in his brilliant essay, “Our Politics and the English Language,” says:

This is a kind of bewildering, private language. But the whole point of the guide is to make it our public language, to force other people to use these invented words, to make the entire society learn and repeat the equivalent of their own post-modern sanskrit. This is our contemporary version of what Orwell went on to describe as “newspeak” in Nineteen Eighty-Four: a vocabulary designed to make certain ideas literally unthinkable because woke language has banished them from use. Repeat the words “structural racism” and “white supremacy” and “cisheteropatriarchy” often enough, and people come to believe these things exist unquestioningly.

What did George Orwell do to cope with the absurdity of life?

He rallied against staleness of imagery and lack of precision such as: “render inoperative,” “ax to grind,” and “leaves much to be desired.” He opposed jargon, unnecessary words and censorship, and would certainly disapprove of “sensitivity readers” editing “fat” from Roald Dahl’s children’s books. He resigned from the BBC, writing that, “in the present political situation the broadcasting of British propaganda to India is an almost hopeless task.” 

And besides his commitment to the beauty of clear, evocative language, he planted roses in his Hertfordshire garden, as Rebecca Solnit wrote about in her book Orwell’s Roses.

Rebecca reminds us how Winston Smith in Nineteen Eight-Four counters the propaganda and lies of Big Brother. 

He has a passionate love affair…cultivates memory, emotion, a sense of history, an attempt to establish facts independently …the whole thing that drives it is a rose metaphor. He thinks why should the rose hip be less beautiful than the rose? And I love it…the natural world, the organic world, the animal world, the vegetable world, the spatial world gives us our metaphors, which is how we understand the world…

A review by George Packer of a biography of Orwell reminds us that “the novel’s pessimism is relieved by Winston Smith’s attachment to nature, antique objects, the smell of coffee, the sound of a proletarian woman singing, and above all his lover, Julia. 1984 is crushingly grim, but its clarity and rigor are stimulants to consciousness and resistance.” 

Of all he had to say about language and thought, social injustice and totalitarianism, food and drink, this advice from George Orwell could be mine, as we continue to smell the roses, at home, and around the world:

So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.

(His real name was Eric Arthur Blair.)

Navigation

  1. Putin’s words for his war on Ukraine
  2. American Medical Association’s deputy editor’s words for a tweet
  3. What a respondent to a story on Breitbart called Covid-19
  4. Winston Churchill’s words for a lie, 1906 
  5. A bribe, used by Daniel Kaufmann in the Summer 1997 edition of Foreign Policy
  6. “As part of our work to implement modernized museum practices, in particular our efforts around decolonization, we will be closing the third floor so we can decant our galleries,” said Daniel Muzyka, the acting CEO of the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria in November 2021. A few months later, the BC government announced that the whole museum would be demolished and rebuilt at a cost of $789 million. Half of the museum was stripped before the BC government, in response to public outrage, backed down from its decision. 

“The Washington Post fact checker on Jan. 21, 2021, the day after his presidency ended, reported that Trump had accumulated 30,573 verifiable untruths during his presidency, averaging about 21 erroneous claims a day.”

Atwood, Margaret. Old Babes in the Wood. Canada: McClelland & Stewart, 2023. In her latest book, there’s an essay on an imaginary conversation with George Orwell, who she says drastically changed her life. 

Case, George. Politics and the English Language. Quillette. December 28, 2023. 

Joyner, Lisa. “Childhood home of George Orwell for sale in Oxfordshire village.” House Beautiful. March 31, 2023. Yours for £1,395,000.

Kakutani, Michiko. The Death of Truth. New York: Crown, 2018. A Pulitzer prize-winner and former New York Times critic, Michiko looks at social media and literature, television, academia, and politics and identifies the trends that originated on the right and left that have elevated subjectivity over factuality, science and common values, including the words of one of the greatest critics of authoritarianism, George Orwell. 

Krauss, Lawrence. “Whiteboards are racist because woke physics journal says so.” The National Post. May 16, 2023. A case study in language silliness that even Orwell could not have predicted.

Luu, Chi. “The Ethical Life of Euphemisms.” JSTOR.  September 30, 2020.

Marcotte, Amanda. “George Orwell stopped and smelled the roses, and Rebecca Solnit wants modern people to do the same.” Salon. November 3, 2021.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell Foundation. Horizon. 1946. One of his best essays.

Packer, George. “Doublethink Is Stronger Than We Imagined.” The Atlantic. July 2019.

Packer, George. “The Moral Case Against Equity Language.” The Atlantic. April 2023. The last paragraph describing our “fractured culture in which symbolic gestures are preferable to concrete actions, argument is no longer desirable, each viewpoint has its own impenetrable dialect, and only the most fluent insiders possess the power to say what is real…It will be a sign of political renewal if Americans can say maddening things to one another in a common language that doesn’t require any guide.”

Solnit, Rebecca. Orwell’s Roses. London: Grant, 2021. Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. “A lush exploration of politics, roses, and pleasure, and a fresh take on George Orwell as an avid gardener whose political writing was grounded by his passion for the natural world.”

Sullivan, Andrew. “Our Politics And The English Language.” The Weekly Dish. June 4, 2021. 

11 Responses

  1. Not seeing Mr Trump as being alone in issuance of BS, how about Trudeau, this guy has been caught in more lies in the past few years than anyone south of 49.
    We are no longer free to have our own thoughts on what is correct or incorrect, after all we have so many experts to set us straight, oops can’t say that, can we.

    If there was a direction that carried any validity we may stay the course, not seeing this I will continue to evaluate my thoughts, strangely I see little data to change or redirect my thoughts and feelings. After all this, why change, will life be better or altered for the better, I think not.

    If all else fails, “Think”

    1. Just ask Google about JT’s lies. John Robson wrote an article, “Justin Trudeau’s Little factory of lies”, in which he quoted this from our PM.”Canada joins the people of Kuwait in honouring their leader and his profound legacy.” So we’re even asked to wink at his lies on our behalf. Canada didn’t “join” with any “people of Kuwait,” who were actually sorry. I doubt 100 Canadians knew.” But I’m not sure if anyone has bothered to keep track of the multitude manufactured by his press team.

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