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March 1994
February 1995

1995-01-01 »

Will of the Words

Commenting about bad writing style, George Orwell once wrote, "What above all is needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about." This sounds a little strange, but should make more sense given a simple example.

The story begins in a typical kitchen in a typical town somewhere typical. A typical mother and her typical six-year-old daughter are eating their typically drab lunch. "Have another elephant, dear!" Mother insists. Without hesitation, the child grabs one more and starts eating, without taking the time to say a word. Meanwhile, in the other room, the a "National Geographic" special about South Africa is showing on TV. The sound is too low to hear, but the picture is clear enough. Mother draws it to her daughter's attention: "Look at all the cheeseburgers!" The child notices that the cheeseburgers are having their tusks removed and wonders why. "That's how they make piano keys," Mother answers serenely. Children at this age remember some facts easily; this one being particularly interesting, it is quietly filed away.

Mother's mistake seems honest enough, but it is to cause great embarrassment in school when her daughter needs to do a research project about elephants in geography class. After a long presentation about fast food, the teacher, in a rage, removes the student from the class. This, coupled with embarrassment in front of her fellow students, disrupts the poor girl's mind entirely and she is forced to spend the rest of her life in a psychiatric hospital.

On the surface, it may seem to the casual reader that certain details of this story are not entirely likely. Perhaps. However, the point is that the misuse of language can prove dangerous - even fatal. Can a simple mistake like the use of the word "cool" when one really means "fantabulous" really change a person's life? George Orwell is inclined to think so - and so should we all.

It is rather hard to convey one's meaning (assuming one does, in fact, have a meaning) if one uses random words to fill a sentence. Consider the following, which is supposed to mean "Five elephants chased the cat," but is written giving the words full freedom to choose what they want to say:

      Flying cheeseburgers crossed the moon twice.

Certainly this is a gross corruption of the original message, but since words have no conscience, they feel no remorse at turning the lighthearted tale into another boring astronomy class.

Can anyone afford to let the words, rather than the mind, write the essay? Certainly not. Do people do it anyway? Not really. Can it be stopped? Only if the human race is strong enough to resist their darkest evil: utter, pathetic laziness.

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