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Elimination of the Fittest

blogtagcloudGeorge Orwell is well known to have legions of admirers who will leap to the keyboard to attack anyone who criticizes their hero. We academics are all supposed to admire him, and especially to regard his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (henceforth P&EL) as a deathless masterpiece of political and literary insight, and to urge our students to read it. Two distinguished evolutionary biologists devoted recent blog posts to ladling renewed praises on P&EL: Jerry “Why Evolution Is True” Coyne, referring with approval to a piece by Lewis Spurgin.

Well, apologies in advance to Orwell fans, but I have always found P&EL sickening. A smug, arrogant, dishonest tract full of posturing and pothering, and writing advice that ranges from idiosyncratic to irrational. Let me comment on just one of its sillinesses.

Orwell famously instructs you to expunge from your prose every “metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” He thinks modern writing “consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else” because people just “use ready-made phrases” and simply paste these “worn-out” clichés together. They should instead be scrapped. Not only will this improve one’s writing, but “from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin, where it belongs.”

Take a look at just a few of the 160 words and phrases he explicitly condemns. Here are two dozen of the individual words that give him word rage attacks:

basic, categorical, clandestine, class, conclusion, consideration, dead, element, eliminate, equality, exploit, extramarital, freedom, inevitable, justice, natural, phenomenon, plastic, predict, romantic, science, sentimental, unforgettable, utilize And here are two dozen of the phrases Orwell deprecates: bear in mind, commensurate with, deserving of, explore every avenue, give rise to, in my opinion, in the interests of, in the near future, in view of, leave no stone unturned, make contact with, make itself felt, objective consideration, radical transformation, satisfactory conclusion, serious consideration, serve no good purpose, serve the purpose of, take effect, take into account, the fact that, to be expected, with respect to, would readily assent

This miscellany of locutions has nothing in common other than that Orwell hated them and (without quantitative support) thought that they were overly frequent in 1946. What conceivable importance could attach to his sundry pet hates? Why should we pay any attention to such absurd peeving, let alone foist P&EL on our students?

It would be reasonable to assume that the survival and prospering of particularly frequent phrases suggest that they are the fittest occupants of their niches. (I’m not saying they are: I’m saying it would be prima facie just as rational to assume that as to assume the opposite.) But Spurgin, calling P&EL “still the best guide to how not to write,” emulates Orwell by enumerating grouses of his own, citing raw Google Scholar hits to establish that certain phrases are overused in science articles:

Think how often you have seen phrases such as ‘cutting-edge’ (1,640,000 Google Scholar hits), ‘Achilles’ heel’ (79,300 hits), ‘shed(ding) light’ (492,000 hits) and ‘holy grail’ (82,200 hits).

He pours particular scorn on the phrase “survival of the fittest,” stemming from his own discipline. He wants us to avoid it precisely because others don’t. We shouldn’t just “borrow phrases, fill out sentences and rehash bad metaphors,” he says, even though the avoidance of such bad practices “requires deep thought and conscious effort.”

But hold on, the phrase conscious effort gets 87,100 Google Scholar hits. Oops!

Changing our writing habits, he goes on, “will take considerable time and effort.”

But wait: time and effort gets 401,000 Google Scholar hits. Oops!

Is it really sensible to think less of Spurgin’s writing because he (like everybody else) uses moderately common phrases of this sort?

Of course not. Orwell was working himself into a lather over nothing. In any statistically normal body of texts there will be some phrases that are more frequent than others. In any living language their popularity will drift up and down with changing fashions and preferences. Orwell’s ridiculous recommendation is to engage in what might be called elimination of the fittest: Find tokens of the currently most popular phrases and replace them by less frequent synonymous expressions. This tedious exercise in statistical perversity is unlikely to improve the writing of our students or colleagues.

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