In his 1950 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote that the English language was in a bad way, hastening to clarify that he wasn’t talking about bad grammar. Instead, he was talking about verbosity, empty metaphors, and, ultimately, misleading political language. If he hoped his prescient essay would clean things up, he would be sadly disappointed. He merely eloquently predicted the far worse state we’re in sixty-five years later.
I won’t go into the profound issues Orwell raises about politicians’ obfuscations. My narrow focus carps on bad writing. I plan to pick on my alma mater, the esteemed bastion of higher education, Kent State University.
The latest issue of the alumni magazine includes an article about the University’s new strategic plan (those two words should send a chill up your spine) entitled “Path to the Future,” and it doesn’t get any better after the title. The caption underneath reads, “Kent State University is developing a strategic roadmap that will enable it to move boldly in new directions and distinguish itself not only in Northeast Ohio but around the world.”
I hate “strategic roadmap” even more than “strategic plan.” And as the article goes on to explain, we’re going to be doing a whole bunch of things “boldly.”
President Beverly Warren is quoted as saying, “We must be courageous and creative as we bring to life a shared vision for our future—a vision that honors our past as it defines a new era of influence and involvement, and a vision that helps us to boldly and clearly share our remarkable story with the world.”
Our vision, the article says, is “to be a community of change agents whose collective commitment to learning sparks epic thinking, meaningful voice and invaluable outcomes to better our society.”
Our commitment to learning sparks “meaningful voice.” English, anyone?
Our “core values” consist of “life-changing educational experiences for students,” a collaborative community, “a living-learning environment that creates a genuine sense of place,” and so on.
Here’s my question. Do these words have any meaning whatsoever? The place being Northeast Ohio; Kent, Ohio; Taylor Hall? What is a “genuine sense of place,” as opposed to a mere sense of place?
I could keep on quoting, but you get the idea. It’s as though committees in all our institutions—schools, businesses, hospitals, churches—dump out a kit full of pat phrases and shuffle them around on a table and eventually make grammatical, but meaningless, sentences out of them.
Orwell put it better: “Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house . . . It consists of gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy.”
Another advantage is that we never have to achieve anything. We can always say we have established a collaborative community and positive engagement and active inquiry. We have sparked meaningful voice! Who’s going to prove we haven’t?