A load of old Orwellian cobblers from Fisk

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As unneeded further testimony to the lasting damage done by George Orwell's dishonest and stupid essay "Politics and the English language", with its pointless and unfollowable insistence that good writing must avoid all familiar phrases and word usages, Robert Fisk treated his readers in The Independent on August 9 to some ranting about his most hated clichés.

I supply below an exhaustive list of the alleged clichés about which he raved. All that is striking about them (for there is certainly nothing interesting or noteworthy about the choices made in his lexical hate list) is their utter arbitrariness and unreasoned character.

roll(used of tanks or military convoys)
core(used attributively, as in core issues)
key(used attributively)
guns fall silent 
clouds of war 
pitted against each other 
soften up(used of what artillery does to targets)
terrorists 
porous borders 
spike of violence 
surge 
Iraqi war veterans 
Vietnam vets 
D-Day veterans 
Dunkirk veterans 
campaign trail 
lash out 
trailing in the polls 
fighting for [one's] political life 
war of words 
blame game 
landslide victory 
iconic 
credit crunch 
staunch(of Protestants)
devout(of Catholics)
extremist 
militant 
fiery 
firebrand cleric 
portfolio 
cutting edge 
events organiser 
world community 
stand idly by 
pointing the finger 
banana republics 
secretive regimes 
dreaded(of secret police)
special forces 
elite special forces 
government watchdogs 
scantily clad(of showgirls)
officials say 
hacks 
load of old cobblers 

What on earth is the rationale for picking out these occasionally encountered words or word strings, selected from among millions, and expressing contempt for them? Fisk says, "On balance, I think we use clichés not because they are easy, but because they are a kind of addiction. We find it very difficult to give them up because they make life easier, less responsible, more synthetic, less real." This is just recycled Orwell. Using phrases that others have occasionally used deadens us, desensitizes us, dupes us into accepting political evil, etc. etc.

I think it's nonsense. No one writes without using at least some phrases that are encountered moderately frequently (that's why they are moderately frequent). No one could. There would be no point in doing so. And nothing picks out the phrases and word uses above as especially reprehensible. Fisk is just lashing out at random against words and phrases he happens to have noticed and thinks are too frequent. He has no information about whether they really are frequent, or more frequent than they used to be or should be.

Fisk has doubts about whether to use the last phrase in the list above, which he wants to use for "a lot of reporting" by other journalists. I think it's a perfectly fine British English idiom, just right for describing Fisk's column. And there is not much wrong with the other phrases he cites either. Watching phrase frequencies and trying to keep them low is not the path to good writing, but to nervous thesaurus use and pointless revision. You will probably write with adequate novelty if you have new thoughts to express. Clearly, on August 9, Fisk was not in that position.

Experience in various newspapers has shown that readers at large simply love to read and add to lexical hate lists. Hundreds and hundreds of comments can be amassed if you just tell readers you want to hear what currently fashionable phrases they hate. (Don't list yours in the comments below, or I'll throw up. Language Log couldn't care less which phrases you hate. Language Log encourages you to rant elsewhere about them: go out onto a balcony and yell hoarsely into the night.) I'm not interested in them. My point here is that listing a few arbitrarily chosen common collocations and snowclones is pretty pathetic as the whole content of a column. Especially when the claim that the words and phrases above have too high a frequency, or are too dead for continued use, has never been supported with evidence, and possibly couldn't be.

This isn't interesting critical writing about language; it's lazy op-ed slop (slop-ed, I think I might call it from now on), a good illustration of the lackluster quality of journalistic writing that Fisk wants to condemn.

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45 Comments »

  1. dporpentine said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 6:34 pm

    Informed grouses about uninformed grousing. This is what I read Language Log for.

  2. Don Campbell said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

    …rant elsewhere about them: go out onto a balcony and yell hoarsely into the night

    In response to this post, I will certainly attempt to make the phrase above more frequent in my writing.

    The mental image it conjured up was priceless.

  3. Jonathan said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 11:55 pm

    Knowing that tanks roll and and blood is shed is knowing the language itself. In other words, knowing what words belong lexically together is a basic part of linguistic competence. Teaching a foreign language, as I do, you would want your students to know and use the "clichés," the conventional combinations of words that everyone uses. In fact, not using the proper cliché is almost an error, isn't it? To use another verb aside from "derramar" in "derramar sangre" would not be correct.

  4. Alex B said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 3:31 am

    This seems to me to be a more erudite version of word aversion. I wonder if he's got anything against 'moist'.

  5. Stephen Jones said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 4:39 am

    In all fairness to Fisk we all have aversions to certain cliches. When phrases are overused the constituent parts lose their separate meanings. Thus tanks always roll in even if the particular movement may bear no resemblance at all to rolling.

    What Fisk fails to understand is that being a cliche is a traditional state, between a live collocation and a set phrase. 'Banana Republic' now 'means a regime I don't like' and the original references to United Fruits influence in Central America is quite forgotten.

    Fisk is right however to complain about lazy automatic collocations. I've yet to hear of a secret police that aren't 'dreaded'. And Fisk would also be right to complain about biases shown by choice of clichés. It's rare we see 'firebrand cleric' applied to Christians or Buddhists.

  6. Andy J said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 5:25 am

    I would suggest that Fisk's particular choices "selected from among millions" are mostly related to his area areas of expertise: history, politics and the military (not sure about 'scantily clad').
    But surely his rant ought to be directed more firmly at his fellow journalists, whether in the print media or television/radio, because I would suggest most of these clichés are not found in everyday speech, nor in the work of better fiction writers. These are examples of journalistic slang. In which case, why use the Independent to launch this broadside, as opposed to the trade press? I rather suspect it might be a piece written some time ago, just handy to publish when the author is actually away sunning himself on a beach.

  7. Stephen Jones said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 5:35 am

    An excellent article in the Guardian on the subject here.
    David Mckie, aka Smallweed, is one of the few journalists who writes intelligently about language matters. I've recommended his articles to Geoff before. All are worth reading.

  8. Stephen Jones said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 5:38 am

    Another point I forgot to make about cliches is that even when they have become dead metaphors or set phrases they can suddenly be resurrected and bite you like a vampire.

    Whilst it would be politically accurate to describe Alaska as a 'banana republic' somehow I don't think it would be the correct phrase.

  9. Lilli said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 7:32 am

    I think you're probably right that interesting prose proceeds from having something worthwhile to say, or rather that readers aren't likely to notice the odd hackneyed phrase in an article that is otherwise engaging. But given that most of us who write for a living don't have brilliant, engaging, new ideas to fill every piece of writing that we do, I think it behooves us at least to question our motives for deploying a cliche. I'm writing abut sectarianism now, so the examples "staunch Protestant" and "devout Catholic" resonated with me. I'd avoid them not because they get used a lot, but because they reinforce stereotypes. "Staunch", from other cliche uses, suggests a stout dependable warrior in battle, for example, whereas devotion is sometimes used interchangeably with or euphemistically for fanaticism or hysteria. These aren't associations you want to drag into an article about Northern Ireland. Similarly, phrases like 'practising homosexual' carry a weight of disdain and loathing for non-majority sexuality. Catholics practise too, but presumably Protestants and heterosexuals have the whole thing down pat. I'm not I hope offering a list of my own pet hates, but suggesting how a cliche can be pernicious. (I suspect in fact that we don't get 'practising Protestants' mainly because it alliterates awkwardly, but like it or not there's the suggestion that Protestantism is default, whereas Catholics must be up to something.)

    A whole article filled with familiar phraseology, meanwhile, suggests a writer on autopilot, someone who isn't thinking. I'd go as far as to say that someone whose work is filled with cliches *isn't* thinking: they're just reaching for a prepackaged phrase rather than trying for accuracy. Sometimes a prepackaged phrase, like a prepackaged meal, is just what you need, and there are high-class prepackaged phrases as there and high-class ready meals. But I don't want my diet to consist entirely of them.

  10. JJM said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 7:58 am

    Er, he's Robert Fisk.

    What did you expect?

  11. Aaron Davies said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 9:01 am

    Shirley you should have done your rebuttal line by line….

  12. Ian Tindale said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 9:02 am

    I suspect that this started as a rant against the phrase "credit crunch" – and quite rightly, too, it being not descriptive at all and instead is becoming more of a household trade-mark for a lack of product. Then he probably thought that the topic needed generalising outwards a bit, and looked at the solitary "credit crunch" item in the list and just started adding stuff.

  13. Robert Hutchinson said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 10:57 am

    Although I am not inclined to agree with Fisk's premise in the first place, there is one group of phrases on there that I can't imagine makes sense to even most avowed cliche haters: X vet(eran)s. I thought, perhaps, that reading the article would shed more light on the reasoning there, but no.

    Maybe we're supposed to switch things up? Talk about Vietnam War veterans and Iraq vets for a while instead? What other possible descriptor is there for those groups of people?

  14. Rick S said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 11:00 am

    Clichés are often a condensed expression of an elaborate idea. "Government watchdog" is far more disgestible than "person whose function is to be vigilant against bureaucratic abuses". Clichés enhance communicative efficiency, which particularly in journalism is A Good Thing.

    What would Fisk have journalists do instead? Should they compose long, transparent plain-language expressions, which will immediately be replaced with clichés by diligent copy editors hoarding column inches? Should they invent ingenious metaphors which distract the reader from the subject matter while he figures out what they're meant to denote, quite possibly to then wonder why a perfectly serviceable cliché was disdained?

    Cliché ideas don't belong in journalism, save perhaps as fluff and filler. But cliché expressions do, per Omit Needless Words. I thrill at an elegant, novel turn of phrase just as at an unexpected modulation in music, but newspapers are not the place for baroque phrasing any more than an elevator is a suitable venue for the 1812 Overture.

    I suspect Fisk is just bored with journalism. From reporting to op-ed is halfway to Mecca; let him move on to Literature, if he dare.

  15. Andrew Ferguson said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 11:31 am

    @Robert Hutchinson

    My own personal peeve against the phrase "X veteran" is that (at least to me) the word veteran carries with it a positive connotation pertaining to experience and skill. I've just always felt it to be inappropriate when automatically attributed to any person who served in the military in whatever campaign, for whatever time period, regardless of what they did; how long they were there; or what was going on.

  16. Polly Glot said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

    @ Andrew Ferguson, But I get 8,500 hits for "SS veterans".

  17. Polly Glot said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

    I can't see his problem with banana republic, which is an excellent coinage, and thanks to Stephen Jones we now have a way of describing this recently evolved political group, the Banana Republicans of Alaska.

  18. Polly Glot said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 1:01 pm

    When they lose the election there will be the Banana Split, which works perfectly with global warming in Baked Alaska.

  19. Sili said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    And "On balance" isn't an annoying collocation? Funny how that works.

    I find that talking to my cat helps deal with misplaced rage. He's remarkably levelheaded and does at times sway my opinions.

  20. Herb Stahlke said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    Fisk is too easy a target. You might take on Churchill's statement, "Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all."

  21. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

    "Dishonest and stupid" seems a bit harsh. Orwell has evidently been somewhat corrupted by running-dog Strunk-and-Whiteism, and it's unfortunate that he leads up to such a bathetic "omit needless words" style conclusion, but I'd say some at least of his targets deserve the kicking he gives. And perverted politics do, indeed, often issue in perverted language, if not always quite in the way he implies. Newspeak?

  22. jamessal said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

    "perverted politics do, indeed, often issue in perverted language"

    Whether this is true or not, Orwell's essay is still a mess.

    Compare: "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

    With: "Statements like Marshal 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."

    I don't see any long words or exhausted idioms in those three deceptive statements. The fact is people lie with all kinds of language. I wonder if Orwell ever edited any of his friends' love letters to: "I want to fuck."

  23. Polly Glot said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

    Orwell is suffering a bit of a backlash. He held out until about the nineties, so that was quite a long time, fifty-odd years. Information that came out at that time showed that he wasn't quite the straight arrow that everyone had sort of always assumed: he had sneaked on his friends to the spooks, apparently. And so another writer turned out to have been an asshole at times.

    I was told by John Emmerson that younger Americans know him mostly through this one, Politics & The English Language, essay that they had rammed down their throats at school. Several commenters to Language Log the last time his name came up seemed have no knowledge of his career as a journalist and writer or of his other essays (last time, somebody — actually an Australian, if I remember right — said that Orwell was a bad man who supported the British colonial system).

    I'm surprised that the single thing you want to say about George Orwell here, Geoff, is that his essay is dishonest and stupid. It sounds like you must hate his work. I think that's depressing.

  24. seriously said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

    Credit crunch–part of a healthy breakfast!

  25. Trent said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

    I don't think Orwell's essay deserves such a diatribe. What "lasting damage" has it caused?

    I can understand why descriptivists love to mock prescriptivists; it's a fun game, after all, one that on occasion I play. But remember, Orwell was a politically aware socialist who was well aware of the power of language to deceive. This wasn't a game to him. One only has to recall Rumsfeld's equating torture (pardon me, harsh interrogation techniques) with fraternity pranks to see how the ugly truth can be painted prettily with the proper language. Quite simply, Orwell is arguing for clarity, freshness, and vigor in language in the belief they will help eliminate deception. Of course, we may nitpick some of his examples, but if a bombing campaign against an enemy is likely to kill X number of civilians, we should say that, and not hide behind the bland "collateral damage."

    jamessal,

    You are taking comments Orwell made in his essay out of context. The examples of deceptive speech you pull from the essay are not intended to illustrate the abuse of long words. They are meant to illustrate the danger of abstract language. We see this danger all the time. We in the United States have a president who has done much to limit individual liberty in the name of preserving "freedoms." Obviously he is using the word "freedom" because it is resonates with the American people, because it stirs their passions. The hope of the speech writer, I presume, is that the audience will not notice the president is actually proposing to limit "freedom."

    One sees similar language everywhere. Ever read a Privacy Policy from a website? After claiming the site respects the privacy of its users, it then proceeds to detail how that privacy will be violated.

  26. Zackary Sholem Berger said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

    You will probably write with adequate novelty if you have new thoughts to express.

    If only this were true. Plenty of writing depends entirely on outworn coinages. Cliches make things easy to understand but not novel – just the opposite. And the link between thought and written speech is not simple (at least to me, when I try to write).

    Advice on usage is helpful, in my opinion. The advice I take away from Orwell is not to feel aversion to particular words, or to avoid split infinitives (I agree that such rules are silly), but to pay attention to novelty and clarity of speech. There is a mean somewhere between a modicum of cliches and a laziness of expression.

    Surely writers like Orwell can give advice on usage without getting lumped in with the rest of the word-averse, prescriptivist horde? Do the other side's flaming torches mean ours always have to be at the ready?

    Even to have Orwell and Fisk mentioned in the same comment thread…!

  27. Matt McIrvin said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 11:44 pm

    Younger Americans know Orwell mostly through 1984 and Animal Farm, which are required reading in many US high-school English courses. I don't think I encountered "Politics and the English Language" until bloggers linked to it.

  28. James Wimberley said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 8:27 am

    "Language Log couldn't care less which phrases you hate."
    Does LL share my aversion to "could care less"? Or is this irrational?

    [(myl) We don't complain, we explain.]

  29. jamessal said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 10:05 am

    "The examples of deceptive speech you pull from the essay are not intended to illustrate the abuse of long words. They are meant to illustrate the danger of abstract language."

    My point is that the three sentences aren't examples of thoughtless or lazy uses of language but plain old political dishonesty — two things Orwell disliked and, in this essay, conflated. Once you realize that there is no simple connection between the two (there is no linguistic advices that will fix those three sentences in the way Orwell wants them fixed) all the stuff in "Politics" about politics reads very badly. His ("vivid" and "concrete") depiction of the hack pol, especially, seems to imply that when a politician (fuck it, let's just take Bush) says he's fighting for our freedom he is not consciously saying something that we (you and I) don't think is true — namely that he is waging a war against a bunch of muslims who, if not for him, would put our women in beekeeper suits — but is merely being lazy with language, and if only he would look up the word "freedom" in a dictionary he would jump up and cry, "Holy shit — let's get out Iraq!" Bush's language is fine (he has competent speech writers); he's just thinking poorly — or lying. Orwell's language is also fine in this essay; he, too, is just also thinking poorly.

    None of this means Orwell is completely worthless, though. "Shooting an Elephant" is a great essay; I remember liking a lot of "Homage to Catalonia"; and his (very British) reviews of Dostoevsky are funny, if not particularly enlightening. I still don't find it upsetting, though, when Pullum takes a swipe at Orwell in one of his rants. I'll take Pullum's curmudgeonry over Orwell's "honesty" any day. Then again, I am a young American.

  30. Polly Glot said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 10:44 am

    Since he's a fake curmudgeon, I think that ought to be 'I'll take Pullum's "curmudgeonry" over Orwell's honesty. As a young American, you're going through a phase of disillusionment with honesty. This often happens when you've had higher hopes for its redeeming powers than are reasonable.

  31. jamessal said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 11:30 am

    The scare quotes alluded to this (from "Honest Decent Wrong" by Louis Menand — http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/01/27/030127crat_atlarge?currentPage=3):

    "Honesty was important to Orwell. He was certainly quick enough to accuse people he disagreed with of dishonesty. But there is sometimes a confusion, when people talk about Orwell's writing, between honesty and objectivity. "He said what he believed" and "He told it like it was" refer to different virtues. One of the effects of the tone Orwell achieved—the tone of a reasonable, modest, supremely undogmatic man, hoping for the best but resigned to the worst—was the impression of transparency, something that Orwell himself, in an essay called "Why I Write," identified as the ideal of good prose. It was therefore a shock when Bernard Crick, in the first major biography of Orwell, authorized by Sonia Orwell and published the year of her death, confessed that he had found it difficult to corroborate some of the incidents in Orwell's autobiographical writings. Jeffrey Meyers, whose biography "Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation" came out in 2000, concluded that Orwell sometimes "heightened reality to achieve dramatic effects."

    "Crick has doubts that the event Orwell recounted in remarkably fine detail in "A Hanging"—he describes the condemned man stepping aside to avoid a puddle of water on his way to the scaffold—ever happened, and Meyers notes that, during his years as a tramp, Orwell would take time off to rest and write in the homes of family and friends, something he does not mention in "Down and Out in Paris and London," where the narrator is sometimes on the verge of death by starvation. Both Crick and Meyers suspect that "Shooting an Elephant" has fabricated elements. And everything that Orwell wrote was inflected by his predilection for the worm's-eye view. When biographers asked Orwell's contemporaries what it was really like at St. Cyprian's, or in Burma, or working at the bookshop, the usual answer was "It was bad, but it wasn't that bad.""

    —-

    "As a young American, you're going through a phase of disillusionment with honesty."

    Yeah, I'll work on that. As an older whatever, you're going through a phase of making silly conjectures.

  32. Trent said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 11:43 am

    jamessal,

    This is in response to your 10:05 a.m. post:

    But what you say about dishonest discourse doesn't contradict what Orwell says. He doesn't claim that removing stale imagery or deleting abstraction will necessarily lead to honest discourse. He says, in fact, what you say, that following all of his advice will not in and of itself lead to honest discourse. But at least we wouldn't have the sort of sentences he criticizes. It's a start, at least.

    Do you agree with his basic premise? That language and thought are inextricably woven?

  33. Richard Hershberger said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    I, like Robert Hutchinson above, find most mystifying the complaint about "Vietnam vet" and similar constructions. This is a concise and transparent way of expressing the idea. It is certainly possible to express the idea in other ways, such as "veteran of the Vientam war", but why would we want to favor the wordier expression? In any case, there are only so many good ways to say this, so if the subject arises frequently we are going to see the same expressions repeated. I suspect that Fisk has been reading discussions of veterans, has noticed that this construction gets used a lot, and isn't smart enough to think through why this might be.

  34. jamessal said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

    "Do you agree with his basic premise? That language and thought are inextricably woven?"

    To some degree, sure. But really I don't know. I think that's a little over my head (and Orwell's). I just know that it's sloppy and arrogant to assume that if only people took as much care with language as you do, they would think like you as well. Take this (representative, I think) bit of nonsense in The Atlantic recently from BR Myers (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200712/vietnam):

    ""Let’s hear from a man who, for all his intellectual shortcomings, never said anything he didn’t mean. Ezra Pound wrote this in 1931:

    The individual cannot think and communicate his thought, the governor and legislator cannot act effectively or frame his laws without words, and the solidity and validity of these words is in the care of the damned and despised litterati …when their very medium, the very essence of their work, the application of word to thing goes rotten, i.e. becomes slushy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and of individual thought and order goes to pot.
    The “application of word to thing” has been rotting for some time now, and in the very terms described. The social and political consequences are all around us. Literati who contribute to the rotwhether to preserve a writer’s reputation, to stimulate the book market, or simply to go with the flowhave no right to complain about incoherent government. The next time they want to praise a bad book, they should rave about the plot instead.""

    Somehow he worked that into a review of Denis Johnson's "Tree Smoke." I don't think it's worth addressing, except to point out the irony of quoting Pound — a brilliant writer with some not-so-great political views.

    "But what you say about dishonest discourse doesn't contradict what Orwell says. He doesn't claim that removing stale imagery or deleting abstraction will necessarily lead to honest discourse. He says, in fact, what you say, that following all of his advice will not in and of itself lead to honest discourse. But at least we wouldn't have the sort of sentences he criticizes. It's a start, at least."

    I didn't say that I caught him in any direct contradiction, only that the essay is a mess because the political stuff doesn't belong in it. You say it yourself: if everybody followed his advice we wouldn't have the sort of sentences he criticizes but we would still have dishonest political discourse. Well, why then is he talking about dishonest political discourse in this essay? If there is a connection at all, he hasn't demonstrated it.

  35. Trent said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

    jamessal,

    It's curious that on specifics we really don't disagree, yet I like O.'s essay and you don't. I wonder, though, if you are requiring too much of an essay, which, after all, is a form devoted to musings and not necessarily to the sort of rigorous argument we usually require from academic articles.

    Disregarding specific statements of Orwell's, I think he in general gives good advice to writers: prefer the fresh over the stale, strive for clarity, and use the exact word and not its near cousin.

    Anyway, I've enjoyed this discussion. I've certainly got some stuff to think about. This article and thread contain the first attacks on O's essay I've encountered.

  36. jamessal said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 5:23 pm

    "I wonder, though, if you are requiring too much of an essay"

    Maybe. And if the bit of political maundering didn't smell to me like the same bad-language-is-responsible-for-everything-bad-in-the-world canard so-called language experts repeat to pump themselves up, I probably wouldn't call the essay a mess. Not all of Orwell's advice is bad (though I probably don't like any of it as much as you do); and he was sharp enough to write this: "correct grammar and syntax… are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear."

    Thanks for getting me to revisit him this morning! (In case you haven't read it, The New Yorker piece on him I linked to earlier is excellent.)

  37. chg said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 7:31 pm

    How delightful it must be to teach at a place where the students' writing is so polished that Orwell's advice is more likely to harm, than to help, their style!

  38. ephant said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 10:32 pm

    Defense of Orwell: http://uncrediblehallq.net/blog/?p=120

    I commented about this post on another blog and they have responded with a blog post of their own.

  39. Dave Ferguson said,

    September 3, 2008 @ 6:30 am

    In related news, George Orwell now has a blog.

    Actually, the Orwell Prize people have begun publishing Orwell's diaries on an entry-by-entry basis, 70 years after each was first written. They began this on August 9th, 2008, and will continue through October, 2012.

  40. Sparky said,

    September 3, 2008 @ 11:09 am

    A single word (like "terrorist" or "portfolio") can't be a cliché. It can be overused, but that's a different concept. And it can't even really be overused, except maybe if it's overused metaphorically to refer to something other than its literal referent ("Dick Cheney is a terrorist"). How can I talk about a portfolio without calling it a portfolio?!?

  41. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

    Geoff's post is not really fair to Fisk; Fisk is calling out each of these words and phrases in a specific context, reeling off a list of journalistic tropes rather than particular peeves about the English language. I would think Fisk's rant is right in line with LL's frequent rants about journalists these days — the story comes first, and then the facts. Fisk could just as well have been writing about fairy tales in which the "strapping" young prince rescues the "damsel" "imprisoned" by a "malevolent" witch, rather than election cycles in which candidates take part in a "war of words" – they may even indulge in a "blame game" – before securing a "landslide victory".
    As for the actual hackneyed phrases of English, Fisk doesn't shy away from them in his closing paragraph, which Geoff quoted: On balance, I think we use clichés not because they are easy, but because they are a kind of addiction. We find it very difficult to give them up because they make life easier, less responsible, more synthetic, less real.

    Fisk must be reading different American papers from me, though. I would love to see a journalist who quoted "officials". All we usually get are "sources" of the "unnamed" variety.

  42. lucia said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 12:35 am

    Catholics practise too, but. . .

    I'm late to the party, but I wanted to mention that, having been raised Catholic, I am familiar with "practicing Catholic" vs. "fallen away Catholic". Parents, cousins etc. simply don't accept the notion that someone has ceased to be Catholic. I'm not sure if the same holds for Protestants. "Devout Catholic" is balanced by "Cafeteria Catholic" or "PCE Catholic". (That's 'Palm Sunday, Christmas, Easter Catholic' who are numerous but I don't think the term is widespread.)

  43. brianbga said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    "unfollowable" is not a word (at least not in the Cambridge Dictionary or Merriam-Webster). I wonder what Professor Pullum's response to this observation is? (I hope he is being ironic)

  44. Barney said,

    January 24, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    Brianbga: Whether "unfollowable" is or isn't a word in the dictionaries you cite has little relevance here. It's a word as used on Language Log, and an easily understandable one. I think the reason its not in your dictionaries is that you're expected to use the definition of "follow", and your knowledge of "un" and "able" to understand the word "unfollowable". Also, as suggested by almost every post on LL, its the job of dictionary editors to describe what language users do, not of language users to follow what dictionaries tell them to do.

  45. Rodger said,

    February 5, 2010 @ 7:49 am

    Barney is quite right. The idea that a dictionary can list all words in a language that has productive rules of morphology is on a par with the notion that a grammar textbook could list all possible sentences.

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