Pullum vs Orwell on clichés

I agree with Geoffrey Pullum that George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ is “hugely overrated”. Being a great writer doesn’t necessarily make you good at explaining the difference between good and bad prose. There are some fair points in P&EL, but much of the analysis is ham-fisted (I rate it higher than Pullum does, but that’s not saying much). And the prose style itself is not up to Orwell’s usual standard.

But Pullum’s main argument mischaracterises one of Orwell’s recommendations: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

Pullum takes this to mean: “In effect, he wants us to collaborate in getting rid of the most widely-used phrases in the language.” He defines a phrase as any two-word sequence, and asks what would happen were we to get rid of the commonest one. The result is that the second-commonest phrase would become the commonest. So we get rid of that too. And so on… until eventually we can only use one-word sentences.

The logic is sound, but the interpretation of Orwell is unfair. Pullum has taken “figure of speech” far too broadly.

The commonest two-word phrases are not ones like ‘Achilles’ heel’, ‘acid test’ or ‘objective consideration’ (three of Orwell’s peeves) but ones like ‘and the’, ‘in a’ and ‘it is’. People don’t notice, let alone complain about, the prevalence of such phrases – because the words they’re composed of are themselves so very common.

The phrases Orwell dislikes are ones that are common enough to be (over)familiar but distinctive enough to stand out. Though he doesn’t use the word, he means clichés. So I suggest this definition instead for his dislike: phrases that are disproportionately common relative to the commonness of their constituent words. If an alliance of peevers could somehow stamp these out (by reducing their frequency to proportionate levels, not by abolishing them), the effect on language would nowhere near as disastrous as Pullum’s scenario.

But, despite this pedantic quibble, Pullum’s overall gist is right. The difference between a common figure of speech that’s stale and one that’s handy is subjective. No measure of frequency can tell us when familiarity will breed contempt.

I like a “fresh, arresting phrase” as much as Orwell. Who doesn’t? But trying to create such a thing is risky. In modern British politics, our leaders have recently given us the “big society” (David Cameron), the “squeezed middle” (Ed Miliband) and “alarm-clock Britain” (Nick Clegg). The clumsiness of these phrases is made all the more striking by their novelty.

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