Each election season, I make a point of re-reading George Orwell’s brilliant, cranky little essay Politics and the English Language. It is useful for reminding me to pay closer attention to what people say and mean, and less attention to the sound of their words. I am easily beguiled by pretty words, and so I need this reminder at least annually. It is also, more painfully, a necessary invitation to self-criticism: weighing my speech and my writing against the standard Orwell sets out, I always find my prose froofy and my thinking lazy.
Since many of the things that I think and write about are Mormon-ish, I’ve been trying to translate Orwell’s critique from political speech to Mormon speech, thinking about the characteristic ways in which Mormons obscure, rather than communicate, their thoughts, and the ways in which we use language to avoid thinking at all.
It’s hard to pick out favorite points from Orwell’s essay; it’s really all good. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll borrow his four major headings:
1) Dying Metaphors: One of the things I noticed this time through is how time-specific it is–many of the metaphors he cites as being so overused as to be meaningless seem perfectly fresh to me. It would be interesting to try to figure out how long an image has to be out of general circulation before it regains its power. I was wondering, for instance, if some of the language I love in early Mormon women’s writings seems potent to me partly (or even mostly) because the imagery is striking now in a way it would not have been in its own time. [Had I not just reread Orwell, I would have said “temporal context” just then. Heh.] Smirkily, I wonder if ERS’s bad poetry would have been even worse in 1880. But I also wonder about Joseph’s letters to Emma that we read recently for Priesthood and Relief Society lessons–some of the language I judge to be truly elegant and powerful, but I wonder how much of the air of profundity comes from the language being merely old [caught myself again–wanted to say “arcane”].
I’m sure we can come up with lots of examples of dying metaphors in Mormon church-speak: shadow of doubt, fiber of my being, lover of my soul (can you imagine the horror if dear old Sister Sorenson were actually thinking about a lover during the singing of a hymn??).
I’m also interested in the ones we try to revivify at regular intervals by teaching about their origins–I thought particularly of the “keystone” metaphor for the Book of Mormon, which seems to require the quadrennial drawing of a Romanesque arch on chalkboards around the world. “Watchmen on the tower” might also fall into this category; it is not uncommon for a speaker to call attention to it by adding descriptive elements or expanding it into a slightly larger narrative.
2) Operators or Verbal False Limbs: these are phrases that pad sentences to make them longer or more euphonious or, in the Mormon vernacular, more like General Conference talks. Mormons use the passive voice for this a lot–“hearts were touched, lives were saved,”–but also, notably, the subjunctive–“that they might,” “if we would be,” “if it be his will.” Other operators might be “even” as an intensifier, “in the name of Thy Son” (its automaticity marked by the fact that people use it in situations where they are not speaking of the son of anyone present), “by the same sign”, “with a vote of thanks,” “I would be ungrateful if,” “harm or accident,” “nourish and strengthen,” (alt. “do us the good we need”), “dear, kind and gracious,” and “so very.”
3) Pretentious Diction: I don’t think Mormons are terribly guilty of this–there’s a populist strain in our rhetorical style that discourages anything that sounds too erudite. If we’re pompous, it tends to come out in archaic prayer language or faux-stentorian [Orwell just rolled over in his grave] General Authority-style diction and syntax, rather than in overblown vocabulary. The exception to this rule, being, alas, the Bloggernacle, where we toss around words like orthoprax, soteriology, and hermeneutics with varying degrees of understanding. There was a very funny piece in Sunstone several years ago–a chart with columns of interchangeable elements of sentences from which one could cobble together completely meaningless but very erudite-sounding Mormon Studies globs of syntax. [cobble together globs? gotcha] Kiskilili’s recent parody of a Sunstone program was a witty send-up of this mode of pretension.
4) Meaningless Words: Many of the examples I can think of have to do with gender roles: patriarchy, preside, nurture, feminist (this one is clearly not just a Mormon problem), even “gender,” by which we most often mean biological sex, but sometimes really do mean gender. The endless parsing of some sections of the Proclamation on the Family, and the possibility of defending sometimes precisely opposite positions with reference to it, suggest that it is a prime example of the sort of “meaninglessness” Orwell is talking about. (I suspect there are good reasons for this–it speaks to contemporary issues that we are still figuring out, but also needs to be durable enough to make sense in other eras, so some degree of vagueness is necessary).
Predictably (perhaps inevitably), our attempts to describe “spiritual experiences” also contain a fair number of words that convey tribal association more than they explain what we have felt or seen or heard. “Spiritual” gets used in a lot of vague ways–sometimes it means emotional, sometimes it means religious (as opposed to secular, or “temporal”), occasionally we use it to describe an event or experience that feels transcendent, an encounter with divinity (small or large D). “Sacred” is similarly abused. “Special” and “choice” still come up occasionally. A new one that seems to be gaining currency is borrowed from Elder Bednar’s talk about “tender mercies.” I hear the phrase invoked to mean virtually any serendipitous event or any accident in which one might suspect divine intervention on whatever scale.
And Mormons have more words for problems (very few other denominations have ALL the verses of “How Firm a Foundation”–two verses worth of “fiery trials” suffices most Christians, apparently. We need seven!) and manage to actually communicate their pain less than most people I know. We “experience trials,” “face adversity,” “endure affliction,” “are tested by the adversary,” but we rarely (to hear us talk about it) are angry, frustrated, despondent, enraged, hurt, jealous, frightened, sad, or just having a !&*@!y day.
I mean this criticism (if it is that) affectionately. I am guilty of all of these things–I once accidentally blessed the food in Sacrament Meeting! The application of Orwell’s essay has limits when speaking of a particular subculture. This language may not be terribly precise or perfectly illuminating, but it does serve as an important group boundary marker. I worry about it only insofar as it makes it harder for us to speak to each other about the things that matter most deeply to us. And, as someone who struggles to have an inner life rich in feeling and not just full of thinking and words, I need my fellow saints to tell me, in small words and vivid images, how they do it. Ultimate truths may be ineffable, but the proximate ones, expressed in precise and lively words, may help us approach it.
Two notes on comments: 1) I know I am a hopeless snob and pedant, but please consider reading or re-reading the entire essay before you comment. It’s short, and you might learn or remember something that will make the opinion you are about to offer even more concise, elegant, and brilliant than it already is.
2) I’m well aware that there are plenty of ways in which this applies to discussions of recent ballot initiatives which will not be named or numbered, but this is not the place to discuss them. We are tired. I will ruthlessly delete comments that bring up that which we are not discussing.