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Look what they've done to my mother tongue
Journalist STEVEN POOLE has, inspired by Orwell, written a riveting book documenting the insidious abuses of the English language perpetrated by politicians and powermongers.
Craig Fitzsimons, 25 Aug 2006
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is, we know there are some things we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the things we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter that tend to be the difficult ones.”
– Donald Rumsfeld
Whenever a writer starts attracting comparisons to George Orwell, it really is time to sit up and take notice. If the old dystopian visionary were still with us, there’s little doubt as to what would be his favourite publication of 2006. Guardian journalist Steven Poole’s second book Unspeak is an addictive, astoundingly forensic exploration of the various ways in which politicians warp, abuse and manipulate the English language.
Weighty stuff, you might think, perhaps erring on the side of dullness? Not a bit of it. Poole’s mordant wit is frequently very funny indeed, though the phrases he gleefully deconstructs (‘climate change’, ‘war on terror’, ‘ethnic cleansing’) are invariably no laughing matter. Like his attested hero Orwell, Poole shuns flowery decorative literary flourishes in favour of unadorned directness (‘Plainspeak’, you might say). Even the book’s title is a deliberate nod to Orwell’s concepts of ‘Newspeak’ and ‘Doublethink’, phenomena which flourish today like never before.
Steven Poole isn’t about to deny the similarities.
“Obviously I’m inspired by Orwell,” he says. “Today’s world is so similar to the one he envisaged in 1984. You have the distant, permanent war that never ends, many miles away, to keep everyone scared, and the enemy changes from time to time. One day it’s al-Qa’ida, the next it’s Iraq, the next it may be Iran. They’ve obviously learned their lessons very well.”
As you’ve probably suspected, the principal actors throughout Unspeak are those great statesmen Bush and Blair, and their various mouthpieces. Poole doesn’t deny that he finds these people extremely entertaining (“Donald Rumsfeld spins and dances through the pages of this book like the hyperactive photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, the Dennis Hopper to Dick Cheney’s Marlon Brando”). Hence, it comes as no huge surprise when he professes a soft spot for FOX News: