Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Orwellian Hurlyburly

            I notice in my reading of contemporary writers, especially journalists, the frequent appearance of the adjective Orwellian.  Its meaning is seldom precise, though it generally relates to the more or less flagrant abuse of language in the service of political ideology as exemplified by the authorities of the fictional “Oceania” in Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, or sometimes as analyzed in Orwell’s famous essay on “Politics and the English Language.  I admire Orwell and don't mind ceding him the adjective, though as a promoter of more ancient authors I might prefer Tacitian* after the Roman historian.

            A place you’ll see Orwellian frequently is on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.  Often enough, alas, you will also find Orwellianism itself there.   In yesterday’s edition, which I was reading on-line in the early morning before our printed copy had arrived, I came upon a little section called “Times Insider”.  This appears to be the journalistic equivalent of those wretched videos with titles beginning “The Making of …" with which the movie industry actually tries to “monetize” its narcissism by taking you “backstage” or “inside” the making of some film.  It was a free sample of what I could get on a regular basis for only $2.50 a week more, if I upgraded my subscription.  Here was an “insider” article explaining why the Times has banished the adjective burly—defined by that journal as meaning “stout, heavy or muscular”—from its pristine pages: “‘Burly,’ a Word with a Racially Charged History”.

            In one of the few articles concerning the much discussed recent events in Ferguson MO that I missed, the Times had apparently used the adjective burly to describe both Michael Brown, the black youth shot to death, and Captain Ronald Johnson, a black state trooper called in to supervise policing in the town.  I have seen only photographs of those men, of course; but there seems to me no doubt that Brown was burly, and Johnson may well be burly too.  But, says Assistant Editor Kyle Massey, “Readers wrote to say that ‘burly’ has long been a racial stereotype; the word hasn’t appeared in this context in The Times since the readers’ notes.”

            The episode in Ferguson has become another emblem of the tragic racial problem in our country; but that is no reason to make it the occasion of ludicrous linguistic balderdash, codswallop, or indeed simple politically correct poppycock--on the part of “readers” or anybody else.  The word stereotype is synonymous with cliché.  The words (one English, one French) meant exactly the same thing: a printing block or form capable of producing a large number of identical copies.  If it is really a cliché (or a “racial stereotype” of long standing) that blacks are said to be peculiarly burly in a peculiarly negative way, Mr. Massey and his “readers” should be able to produce many literary examples.  But, no….  I am a professional philologist, and I have come up with precisely one literary example linking burliness with dark complexion.  In 1837 Carlyle wrote thus of his hero Mirabeau, a “Caucasian” Frenchman: “Destiny has work for that swart burly-headed Mirabeau.”  That I found recorded in the OED wherein “readers” can easily trace the noble lineage of the adjective burly.  Craigie and Hulbert, in their Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, record no uniquely American use of the word.

Swart and burly-headed?

            In our racial climate, so vigilant for offense and so pre-emptive in the indictment of an expected ill will, there are bound to be strange linguistic episodes.  In recent decades I have read of two public officials, one in New Jersey and a second in Washington, who got into trouble by using the adjective niggardly perfectly appropriately, but within the hearing of people apparently unfamiliar with a word in common educated use since the time of Chaucer.  The wrath that fell upon them, though absurd, at least has a genuine linguistic explanation.  My cadet son Luke, a linguistic anthropologist who is completing a book about an astonishing range of culturally demanded euphemisms, tells me that in many of the world’s isolated indigenous communities, the use of certain words in certain circumstances can be forbidden on account of phonological accident.  You cannot say dart, because it is too close to dirt—that sort of thing.  In some languages a man must abandon the everyday lexicon and use a virtually alternative vocabulary in the presence of his mother-in-law!  Some of the bear-hunters of the far north are never, while on the hunt, to use the actual word bear.  A bear might hear them and be offended--or forewarned.  So they say “pine needle” or some such instead!

            But English is not a tribal tongue with four hundred and fifty-eight native speakers.  It is a great world language with a vast literature.  While it is living and vibrant with variety and change, it is not an anarchy of tribal dialects—whether the dialects be regional, racial, or political.  The tragic loss of a young American life in a context of deplorable social antagonism and racial tension is indeed an appropriate occasion for soul-searching.  But somehow I doubt that an Orwellian purge of the lexicon conducted by our “newspaper of record” in sanctimonious ignorance will give us much help.

* Tacitus writes thus: Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.  (To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.)