As I Please

in Tribune

21 April 1944

George Orwell

IN A LETTER published in this week’s Tribune, someone attacks me rather violently for saying that the B.B.C. is a better source of news than the daily papers, and is so regarded by the public. I have never, he suggests, heard ordinary working men shouting ‘Turn that dope off! ‘when the news bulletin comes on.

On the contrary, I have heard this frequently. Still more frequently I have seen the customers in a pub go straight on with their darts, music and so forth without the slightest slackening of noise when the news bulletin began. But it was not my claim that anyone likes the B.B.C., or thinks it interesting, or grown-up, or democratic, or progressive. I said only that people regard it as a relatively sound source of news. Again and again I have known people, when they see some doubtful item of news, wait to have it confirmed by the radio before they believe it. Social surveys show the same thing—i.e. that as against the radio the prestige of newspapers has declined.

And I repeat what I said before—that in my experience the B.B.C. is relatively truthful and, above all, has a responsible attitude towards news and does not disseminate lies simply because they are ‘newsy’. Of course, untrue statements are constantly being broadcast and anyone can tell you of instances. But in most cases this is due to genuine error, and the B.B.C. sins much more by simply avoiding anything controversial than by direct propaganda. And after all—a point not met by our correspondent—its reputation abroad is comparatively high. Ask any refugee from Europe which of the belligerent radios is considered to be the most truthful. So also in Asia. Even in India, where the population are so hostile that they will not listen to British propaganda and will hardly listen to a British entertainment programme, they listen to B.B.C. news because they believe that it approximates to the truth.

Even if the B.B.C. passes on the British official lies, it does make some effort to sift the others. Most of the newspapers, for instance, have continued to publish without any query as to their truthfulness the American claims to have sunk the entire Japanese fleet several times over. The B.B.C., to my knowledge, developed quite early on an attitude of suspicion towards this and certain other unreliable sources. On more than one occasion I have known a newspaper to print a piece of news—and news unfavourable to Britain—on no other authority than the German radio, because it was ‘newsy’ and made a good ‘para’.

If you see something obviously untruthful in a newspaper and ring up to ask ‘Where did you get that from?’ you are usually put off with the formula: ‘I’m afraid Mr So-and-So is not in the office.’ If you persist, you generally find that the story has no basis whatever but that it looked like a good bit of news, so in it went. Except where libel is involved, the average journalist is astonished and even contemptuous if anyone bothers about accuracy with regard to names, dates, figures and other details. And any daily journalist will tell you that one of the most important secrets of his trade is the trick of making it appear that there is news when there is no news.

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TOWARDS the end of May 1940, newspaper posters were prohibited in order to save paper. Several newspapers, however, continued to display posters for some time afterwards. On inquiry it was found that they were using old ones. Such headlines as ‘Panzer Divisions Hurled Back’ or ‘French Army Standing Firm’ could be used over and over again. Then came the period when the paper-sellers supplied their own posters with a slate and a bit of chalk, and in their hands the poster became a comparatively sober and truthful thing. It referred to something that was actually in the paper you were going to buy, and it usually picked out the real news and not some piece of sensational nonsense. The paper-sellers, who frequently did not know which way round a capital S goes, had a better idea of what is news, and more sense of responsibility towards the public, than their millionaire employers.

Our correspondent considers that the public and the journalists rather than the proprietors are to blame for the silliness of English newspapers. You could not, he implies, make an intelligent newspaper pay because the public wants tripe. I am not certain whether this is so. For the time being most of the tripe has vanished and newspaper circulations have not declined. But I do agree—and I said so—that the journalists share the blame. In allowing their profession to be degraded they have largely acted with their eyes open, whereas, I suppose, to blame somebody like Northcliffe for making money in the quickest way is like blaming a skunk for stinking.

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ONE mystery about the English language is why, with the biggest vocabulary in existence, it has to be constantly borrowing foreign words and phrases. Where is the sense, for instance, of saying cul de sac when you mean blind alley? Other totally unnecessary French phrases are joie de vivre, amour propre, reculer pour mieux sauter, raison d’etre, vis-a-vis, tete-a-tete, au pied de la lettre, esprit de corps. There are dozens more of them. Other needless borrowings come from Latin (though there is a case for ‘i.e.’ and ‘e.g.’, which are useful abbreviations), and since the war we have been much infested by German words, Gleichschaltung, Lebensraum, Weltanschauung, Wehrmacht, Panzerdivisionen and others being flung about with great freedom. In nearly every case an English equivalent already exists or could easily be improvised. There is also a tendency to take over American slang phrases without understanding their meaning. For example, the expression ‘barking up the wrong tree’ is fairly widely used, but inquiry shows that most people don’t know its origin nor exactly what it means.

Sometimes it is necessary to take over a foreign word, but in that case we should anglicize its pronunciation, as our ancestors used to do. If we really need the word ‘café’ (we got on well enough with ‘coffee house’ for two hundred years), it should either be spelled ‘caffay’ or pronounced ‘cayfe’. ‘Garage’ should be pronounced ‘garridge’. For what point is there in littering our speech with fragments of foreign pronunciation, very tiresome to anyone who does not happen to have learned that particular language?

And why is it that most of us never use a word of English origin if we can find a manufactured Greek one? One sees a good example of this in the rapid disappearance of English flower names. What until twenty years ago was universally called a snapdragon is now called an antirrhinum, a word no one can spell without consulting a dictionary. Forget-me-nots are coming more and more to be called myosotis. Many other names, Red Hot Poker, Mind Your Own Business, Love Lies Sleeping, London Pride, are disappearing in favour of colourless Greek names out of botany textbooks. I had better not continue too long on this subject, because last time I mentioned flowers in this column an indignant lady wrote in to say that flowers are bourgeois. But I don’t think it a good augury for the future of the English language that ‘marigold’ should be dropped in favour of ‘calendula’, while the pleasant little Cheddar Pink loses is name and becomes merely Dianthus Caesius.

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