The Best Words

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Do the words we use really matter that much?

Of course they do. We couldn’t navigate the world without them. But the importance of finding the right words–or, since the “right” ones are rarely cut and dried–the importance of finding the best ones, is supreme.

One challenge to finding the best words, though, is that they are constantly changing. In the 1970s you could have sincerely denigrated someone’s cool by calling them a jive turkey. To use the term today, though, could only be a joke about the corniness of times gone by.

orwell-sketch

Orwell said that for our words to gain real purchase on the world, we must constantly reinvent them. This is the main point in his justly famous essay “Politics and the English Language.”

As it is still such an important essay, I’ll quote Orwell at length on the need to refresh our words. He alerts us to a handful of habits that promote imprecise language, including:

DYING METAPHORS. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness.

But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed.

Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a ‘rift’, for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase. . . . 

By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

Using worn out mental imagery is a sign we are not thinking clearly. Instead of pressing ourselves for vivid new words, we just grab from the shelves whatever stock phrases fill out our thoughts most conveniently.

In his recent book On Tyranny: Twenty Lesson from the Twentieth Century, the historian Timothy Snyder argues that politicians enlist our lexical laziness to inculcate mental habits that support their agendas. We can be hypnotized by the repeated use of certain phrases to accept implicit judgments, ideas or values we have not thought through.

If you find yourelf repeating a stock phrase (which abound in political slogans), chances are a notable person has inserted it into the public discourse to save you the effort of thinking about something he wants you to accept at face value. I have to monitor, for example, my use of “reactionary right,” or it will come out automatically.

Echoing Orwell, Snyder exhorts us, “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone else is saying.”

The novelist Martin Amis thinks the freshness of one’s style signals the clarity of her insight. Bad style, he says, is not just clumsiness, dreariness, or vagueness of expression; it is a failure to grasp the thing one is trying to write about. In fact, for Amis to write well is to wage a “war against cliche.” (Check out his excellent book of the same title.)

It is instructive, and sometimes just fun, to dig up phrases that have become cliches but were formerly useful, creative expressions, which even Orwell or Amis could be proud of.

For example, Orwell kept a diary during the first two years of World War Two. Like many in Great Britain, he sensed his country was gearing up to fight a millenial war, one that would abolish the social privilege of the wealthy and prioritize the basic needs of the masses. Hundreds of thousands of mobilized Britons were saying to themselves, and increasingly to one another, this was the last time they would toil and bleed for the aristocracy. But the aristocracy, Orwell noted, didn’t see the change coming. They continued blindly to be chauferred to London’s fashionable spots in mink scarves and bespoke suits, fretting about when the best restaurants’ menus would go back to normal, “as if,” Orwell said, “the other 99 percent of the population did not exist.”

Today, “the other 99 percent”  has become such a tired phrase, it shocked me to see it (first?) written down in 1940! Of course Orwell was the very man to come up with it.

Sometimes writers pass beyond mere analytic clarity and achieve a magical, prophetic grasp of inflective words–phrases they might not even see coming but which irrupt into history and embed themselves in our consciousness.

To wit:

In his sprawling novel Vineland, Thomas Pynchon mixes elements of gonzo, Conrad and Kafka with his own madly inventive magical realism to tap into America’s dark political subconscious. The book is set in the 1980s, when Reaganism is orchestrating a corporatized reaction to Viet Nam and Jimmy Carter of vague, triumphalizing menace. Private prisons are on the rise, and so are two-bit drug convictions that fill them with profitable, expendable bodies. The state gives free rein to the police, and they use it. Strikes are broken, cults are  suppressed, order imposed. In one passage, Pynchon needs a phrase for the small-time fascist’s view of the status of women under the new authoritarian order. How will pure power license the brave new men to treat the fair sex? Like this:

Troopers evicted the members of a commune in Texas, beating the boys with slapjacks, grabbing handcuffed girls by the pussy.

And there it is. Written in 1990. “Grab them by the pussy.” There’s no way Pynchon could have anticipated the phrase’s radioactivity. But then the small-time fascism of sexual predation disclosed itself in precisely this phrase in 2016 and won its way to national power.

A good country preacher knows when to cut his homily short–in the quiet after a revivifying piece of exegesis, where the congregation can make its own sense the lesson. And so I leave you with Pynchon’s words of prophecy, his omen of how casually we can give away our own dignity if we just stop thinking.

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