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Orwell and the Not Unblack Dog

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In my April 4 post I called George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language” (P&EL) “A smug, arrogant, dishonest tract full of posturing and pothering, and writing advice that ranges from idiosyncratic to irrational.” I couldn’t substantiate all these charges in one post; I dealt with just one specific piece of silliness. Let me now explain why I charge P&EL not just with silliness but with intellectual dishonesty.

Orwell affects to believe that we users of English could improve the state of the language, “if enough people would interest themselves in the job.” For example, we should be able “to laugh the not un- formation out of existence.”

He means phrases like seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley (which he quotes from an essay by Harold Laski as a typical example of bad modern writing), or phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption (which he calls “a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow”). He apparently thinks not un-X, for any adjective X, is always noxious and disreputable jargon. And he adds a footnote about it:

One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.

Let me explain what is so astonishingly dishonest about that footnote. The adjective-negating prefix un- is fairly productive, but by no means universally so. For example, it doesn’t occur with the most basic adjectives of approbation and disapprobation (*ungood, *unbad, *unright, *unwrong). And relevantly here, it never occurs with color adjectives (*unred, *unorange, *unyellow, *ungreen, *unblue, *unindigo, *unviolet), and it never occurs with size adjectives (*unbig, *unlarge, *unhuge, *unvast, *unlittle, *unsmall, *untiny).

What this means is that Orwell’s example has nothing to do with the not un- construction that he is supposed to be addressing. His example is ungrammatical simply because of the three illicit uses of the un- prefix on adjectives that do not allow it. Likewise *An unblack dog was chasing an unsmall rabbit across an ungreen field, which contains no instances of the not un- construction at all.

Orwell may have thought that phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption should be shunned because they needlessly and redundantly use double negation, but if so, he was wrong. Dropping the two negators from a not unjustifiable assumption yields a justifiable assumption; but that does not have anything like the same meaning. Calling an assumption justifiable suggests one can readily justify it; using “not unjustifiable” is much weaker, and merely suggests that you cannot rule out the possibility of its being justified.

In the same way, Jane is intelligent speaks positively of Jane’s intellect, placing her perhaps in the top quartile of the intelligence range. Jane is not unintelligent, by contrast, is faint praise indeed. It says she does not fall in the range picked out by unintelligent (say, roughly the bottom quartile), but it doesn’t say much more than that.

And Laski’s not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley merely connotes failure to be decisively non-Shelleyesque. That is quite different from saying like a seventeenth-century Shelley, which directly affirms Shelleyesqueness.

The not un- construction is a perfectly respectable device, semantically useful when delicate judgments of ranges on scales are under consideration. Orwell was foolish to make it one of his bugaboos. But worse than that, he used a totally dishonest argument in his attempt to get us to follow him in his peeve.

If I thought Orwell was too dim to see this, I might be more lenient. But Orwell was intelligent—not just not unintelligent. A man who can write political novels as brilliant as 1984 and Animal Farm is smart enough to know what he’s doing. He was slipping in a thoroughly dishonest argument, disguised as a humorous aside, to trick the unobservant into agreement with him.

Sitting as it does amidst so much posturing, hypocrisy, and hyperbole, that little bit of cheating makes me like P&EL even less.

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