A few nights ago, I was folding laundry before bed and questioning my husband, a forensic accountant, about terms that are used to describe massive fraud. He said I might be looking for the word looting, as in the systematic looting of a company’s assets.
I was thinking of the whole country, not a single business.
The next morning, I woke up with the idea that I needed better verbs to give voice to my concerns. I began to type: loot, plunder, ransack; eviscerate, desecrate, oppress. From a shelf behind me, I pulled down Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, one of Constance Hale’s books. The subtitle is especially promising: “Let Verbs Power Your Writing.” Still, I set the book aside for the moment and returned to my impromptu vocabulary lesson. The verbs demanded subjects—predators, opportunists, oppressors. The subjects required adjectives—ruthless, callous, cruel.
I ran the list through Word’s built-in thesaurus until the synonyms became repetitive. The energy in the words I had compiled was volatile. The power of language needs to be harnessed and deployed responsibly. At the bottom of a stack of books on my desk, I located a collection of George Orwell’s essays. It was time to reconsider Politics and the English Language, originally published in 1946. I skimmed to the end of the first paragraph, where I found what I was seeking. Language, Orwell wrote seventy-one years ago, is an “instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” In the essay, Orwell chose five passages from academic and popular sources to identify and analyze the two flaws they all shared: “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision.”
The section titled Dying Metaphors ends with the hammer and the anvil as an example of a metaphor that has been “twisted out of [its] original meaning.” “In real life,” he wrote, “it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about; a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would be aware of this, and would avoid perverting the original phrase.”
I fell into this exact twisted metaphor’s trap on New Year’s Eve. The fortune in my cookie said, “It is always better to be the hammer than the anvil.” The idea amused me, so I posted it to Facebook, along with a photograph of the restaurant’s Lucky Egg, and wished the same fortune to anyone who might read what was on my feed.
As Orwell pointed out, I had not stopped to think.
These times call for the untwisting of meanings, for language that is precise, rather than perverted. I will be reading Orwell and Constance Hale this year. I will also be re-reading Don’t Think of An Elephant! by George Lakoff to sharpen my framing skills and The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatur Zerubavel to further explore how conspiracies of silence flourish. There is little room for the error of not thinking.
And for anyone who read and remembers my wish for you in 2017, allow me to amend it. May you have the endurance of an anvil this year. Break every hammer raised against you.