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Saturday, August 03, 2002
Nineteen eighty four and the use of prepositions

In his disturbing, and in some ways prophetic, novel Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) introduced a new way to limit the populace’s powers of expressing themselves. The general idea is that, if you confuse people about meanings enough, they will be unable to express themselves properly. This is particularly useful under totalitarian regimes where it is important for the rulers that the people should stay under control. This policy was deliberate. It manifested itself in oxymorons: opposites were used instead of tautologies. For example, ‘The Ministry of Peace’ was responsible for conducting the war. Of course, this could not happen in real life, could it? People here in Airstrip One are too intelligent, wary, and well informed. It is only in other English-speaking countries – you know, those whose English is not far off pidgin – that such a thing is conceivable.

Somehow, the concept has been put into practice here and a whole piece of meaning has been taken from us by the ignorant.

Consider the verb ‘to protest’. Nothing very difficult about that, so far. ‘I protest’ – that’s all right. Make it more complicated: ‘I protest the decision’ Total raving lunacy. What should be said is ‘I protest against the decision’. If one allows that the meaning of ‘protesting the decision’ is really the same as ‘protesting against the decision’, what should we make of ‘I protest my innocence’ (meaning, properly, ‘I protest that I am innocent’? If we accept the sloppy, no preposition version, analogous to ‘I protest the decision’, then ‘I protest my innocence’ has to mean ‘I protest against my innocence’.

It often happens that expressions change in meaning because people misunderstand them. ‘Begging the question’ means, properly, ‘dodging the question’. (I heard it used correctly by Melvyn Bragg last weekend – well done Melvyn.) However, in most English English usage, it has come to mean ‘raising the question’. No matter how much we regret this absurd change, we have to recognise that English is still a developing language and we should welcome most of the new things that happen to it, especially if they add to our ability to express ourselves. On the other hand, we have to deprecate changes that detract from this ability.

My guess would be that the ‘doublethink’ change that I am objecting to originated in the USA, comparatively recently. After all, they have done damage to our language in lots of other ways. [Pontificate later – Ed.] There would seem to be evidence that ‘to protest’ was used correctly as recently as the last war.

James Stewart starred in a film, Call Northside 777, made just after the war. I am not sure if this is the right movie but the story sounds right. In the film I have in mind, a newspaperman investigates an unjust imprisonment. Of course, the prisoner concerned protests his innocence. (He may well have appealed against his conviction, too). In the dialogue, one of the characters uses the expression in the original way. Somehow, since then, it sank (sic) almost without trace.

How do we stop the trend towards doublespeak? Recognising it is the first step. It is more than about being pedantic; it is a matter of meaning what we say and being sure that we understand what others are saying.

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