Orwellian Semantics

September 30, 2012 — Leave a comment

I have numerous issues with the bad habits of modern writing, including an overuse of the passive voice, laziness through use of metaphor, and an abundance of technical jargon or pretentious vocabulary. My writing often falls victim to this, especially with my personal poor habit of the use of the passive voice. It becomes problematic in medical or technical communication when jargon and abbreviations render listeners incapable of understanding. In political speech, we hear perversions of metaphorical language, with a bit of Latin thrown in where a Saxon word would suffice. This lack of precision becomes problematic, and such issues were discussed by George Orwell in his fierce essay, ‘Politics and the English Language.’

I’ve often heard, in casual conversation or, worse, in public arenas, the phrase ‘it’s only semantics’ or a phrase of that nature. This implies that the person is either lazy in speech or uninformed. I like to think that our downfall is sloth rather than lack of knowledge, so I will assume that these people know the premises behind semantics, what they imply, and why they are so very important. If that is true, then the speaker is simply tired of the disconnect in language that is being proposed.

Let’s assume one hasn’t read the precision of Ernest Hemingway, the frugality of EB White, or the aforementioned essay by Orwell. I’ll relate semantics to the study of information, information theory. Let’s trace a message from you to me,if we were speaking or writing to one another. A message begins at its source, such as a thought or argument in your brain. You must codify this message into language, either written, spoken, signed by hand, or some variation. That message is transmitted, by air, telecommunications, visually, or the like, to me. I must then, as the receiver, decode the message. Thus, information passes from you to me. A problem at any level leads to a breakdown in our conversation and, according to the optimist Orwell, decline of civilization.

Semantics is the study or philosophy of how we communicate with and understand one another. In terms of the information theory example above, this refers to the coding and decoding of speech. The words we use attempt to convey information. If the words are not precise, the information will be lost or misunderstood. If you heard me state that ‘John is a wild card, but Jane is solid,’ would you say this is precise? Sure, in context, you might understand the message, but that is no excuse and is thus laziness of speech. If you heard ‘John’s exam performance varies based upon his mood, but Jane always performs well,’ you can already see an improvement in the message’s precision. Again, we should remain as precise as possible, no matter the context.

In communicating between those in medicine, those in science, those in economics, and those in countless other fields, I can see this lack of focus on semantics. We become lazy and begin to use metaphors, jargon, or lack of descriptive terms. We then become annoyed when a person begins to focus on the meaning behind individual words or phrases, stating that it is only semantics. Thus, I believe this phrase stems from a laziness founded in sloth.

I am a horrid writer. Specifically, I mean that I tend to use the passive voice too often, use unnecessary words to balance the flow of a sentence, and often lack precision. However, I believe very strongly in proper communication. Many say this has to do with listening, but the act of listening is limited by the quality of the message transmitted.

This post stems both from issues in my research proposal revisions and with my status lying at the meeting point between medical and graduate students. They don’t understand each other quite often, and my split personality feels a sense of cognitive dissonance. I urge those in any field to practice in precision and recoding of speech for those outside your field. I’m working on it, too, and it is difficult to break bad habits.

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