Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The Accidental Lexicon: A Brief Response to Orwell's Politics and the English Language

I have a cold. :-( Ergo, I don't really feel like blogging. But just to keep the content flowing, here's an assignment I wrote for a U of A extension course I took a couple of years back. Without the original context, it should be just baffling enough to keep you amused.

The Accidental Lexicon
A Brief Response to George Orwell's Politics and the English Language
By Earl J. Woods


In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell bemoans "…the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes."

While Orwell states this almost offhandedly, he really assumes much. Is language, in fact, deliberately shaped by an elite cadre of academics? Or does the careless invention and creativity of the public have a larger effect upon the English lexicon?

Orwell would probably be horrified by the following modern street phrase: "The teacher was so excited, he spooged his gonch." But modern writers would struggle to find a more visceral means of expression, especially if they are writing to an audience accustomed to graphic language.

"Spooge his gonch" is a perfect phrase, given the proper context, and yet it was certainly not conceived by Oxford professors. This is a phrase that evolved in the shady back alleys of English literature. It is impossible to pin down the exact origins of this colourful metaphor, but we might guess that the combination of "gonch," the crudest term available for male undergarments, with "spooge," a still cruder term for a particularly disgusting mess, proved irresistible to authors raised on toilet humour.

Naturally, Orwell is correct when he states that language is an instrument, and it is certainly true that the opprobrium of the learned classes can prevent some authors from using all their creative muscle. But the common people, too, can shape language, if not always deliberately. Given Orwell's socialist leanings, it is interesting that he dismisses, by implication, their creative power.

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