Monday, October 29, 2007

Chertoff's Anglo-Saxon Prose

There's been a bit of consternation around the blogosphere regarding comments Michael Chertoff made about a fake FEMA press conference:
I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government [...] I have made unambiguously clear, in Anglo-Saxon prose, that it is not to ever happen again and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinarily poor judgment. [emphasis mine]

What's with the Anglo-Saxon there? Chertoff is probably alluding to George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" (incidentally, my favorite essay on writing ever, bar none). Orwell's section on pretentious diction reads:
Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an aire of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable , are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien r&eacutgime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung , are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g. , and etc. , there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness. [emphasis mine]

Years of having freshman composition inflicted upon me has left me with a deep, deep love for Orwell. I'm just a little surprised to find that I have something in common with Chertoff (except baldness, of course). By the way, failure to follow Orwell here is why so much academic writing stinks.


  1. Doesn't it just mean that he swore at his staff?

  2. Likewise, I assumed he meant he just deployed a few four-letter words at his staff.

  3. Thanks for the Link!

    It certainly would be interesting if Chertoff championed Orwell, but I'll bet he used as many French and Latin words (introduced after Anglo-Saxon) as Orwell does in this passage--he couldn't even write a "simple statement".

  4. Anonymous8:48 PM

    Of course! An administration official was citing Orwell on how to avoid doublespeak ... wait, what? Where am I? What did you people do with my America?

    (Actually, though, I should've guessed Orwell. But the point of my misprision was really to fiddle with some AS and OE to start my day.)

  5. Where do you think all the best swear words come from? Good, ol' fashioned Anglo-Saxon.

  6. In the words of Weird Al Yankovic, he got medieval on their heinies.