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Verbal Inflation

February 1st, 2005 · 3 Comments

I make a point of rereading Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” once or twice a year, and this time through paused at this line:

Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics…

What occured to me was the related but distinct point that, like standing ovations, words are subject to a form of inflation through overuse. I don’t mean the more familiar problem of imprecise or sloppy use destroying useful distinctions between words, but rather the weakening of the force of words through more-or-less correct but exaggerated use. Any unusually good film becomes a “masterpiece,” everyone with signnificant talent becomes a “genius” (and anyone funny becomes a “comic genius”), every minor novelty is “groundbreaking,” and as for “fascism,” Orwell was able to write even in his own time that it “has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.'”

Since language is a kind of commons, we soon get a tragedy of the lingustic commons, a predictable inflation of our currency of words that results from each writer being free to print as much as he likes. (Not, I hope I needn’t say, that that’s on the whole a remotely bad thing.)

Tags: Language and Literature



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Glen Whitman // Feb 8, 2005 at 2:01 pm

    Tragedy of the commons, eh? Clearly what we need is private property rights in language! 😉

  • 2 Richard Garner // Feb 9, 2005 at 7:19 pm

    Lol! The fact that it is a commons doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a tragedy. I have heard writers refer to a “comedy of a commons,” where a coomon resource actually becomes more valuable the more people use it. For instance, consider the internet. Sure, webspace itself is privately owned. However, being online is a much more interesting place to be the more people use it.

    Likewise the market itself. The free market is a commons. Absnet government regulation, people posess freedom of entry to industry, and anybody can enter the market as a producer or a consumer. And the market becomes a much more interesting and valuable place because of it.

    I can only recommend Roderick Long on the issue: http://libertariannation.org/a/f53l1.html

    Language is the same. The more people use it, the richer it becomes.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Feb 10, 2005 at 6:28 am

    Well, right, obviously that’s generally true of language. I was only talking about this narrow case.