Orwellian gobbledygook

Too often we try to hide ourselves behind big words that don’t mean much. It is unfortunate that we find it very hard to follow the simple advice: Say it as you see it.

Andreas Kluth of the Economist calls all this Orwellian gobbledygook because it was George Orwell who pointed out in his famous essay Politics and the English language that, “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness”.

Kluth believes the two reasons we do this are:

1. Laziness: Speaking or writing clearly takes enormous effort.

2. Fear or cowardice: If you write clearly you use strong words which can offend somebody, and that is something you will not want to do.

The two things about any subject

Stranger in the bar said, “For every subject, there are really only two things you really need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important.”

Difficult as it may be to accept, it might be true. Whether it is true or not doesn’t matter so much because I think the exercise of boiling down a subject to two sentences is tremendously valuable.

Glen Whitman, an economist who has compiled a list of two things ever since he met the stranger in the bar, says, “The “two-ness” is crucial. Three things wouldn’t demand such disciplined thinking; one thing wouldn’t give a truthful picture.”

The list hasn’t been updated for quite sometime.

The key to clear writing

…is clear thinking. From the Economist Style guide:

“A scrupulous writer”, observed Orwell, “in every sentence that he writes will ask himself at least these questions:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  5. Could I put it more shortly?
  6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

When buying something think about these things

Things that go on your body or inside your body deserve the most attention. Things which you use a lot of time deserve a lot more attention. Things that are in your immediate surrounding deserve enough attention.

Buy something only if it is absolutely necessary.

If it is absolutely necessary then do your research and buy a version of that thing that serves your purpose the best. Even if it is a little more expensive.

Numerical Context

We make sense of the world around us with help of numbers. They are everywhere. Not just in critical things like your body-mass index, the credit card debt or the speed limit on a highway but also in things that don’t affect you so much you like number of calories in that steak, the number of likes received by your latest status update or clinical trials data on a new drug. But numbers on their own mean little. They need to be put in context.

We do well in being able to put some of them in context (for eg. comparing your current speed with the speed limit) but most of the numbers that don’t directly affect us we don’t put in context. For example, what does a £15 billion cut in the UK defence budget over a decade mean? Looks like a big number but in actuality with a defence budget of about £45 billion per annum, over 10 years it’s less than 4% overall cut. Is that good or bad? With a £175 billion budget deficit and £1 trillion public debt, I’ll let you decide.