Um, if I throw you under the bus, is it, well, what it is?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan
Whenever I can find any excuse to do so, I include George Orwell's classic essay "Politics and the English Language" on my course syllabi. (There is always a reason to do so.) In class discussion, I describe that essay as the most important essay ever written, and -- subject to obvious qualifications that this conclusion is both subjective and limited to the essays that I have actually read -- I mean it.

Most students initially think that they are back in a grade school grammar class, seeing Orwell's criticisms of various samples of egregiously bad writing as bordering on priggishness. Some students move beyond that level of understanding and also take away from the essay important lessons in critical reading and listening, with Orwell making arguments about political manipulation of language that are familiar from his much better-known classics 1984 and Animal Farm. There is good reason that the term Orwellian is so potent. Few students, however, see the third and most important message in the essay: language can manipulate us as much as we can manipulate language. Orwell argues and demonstrates brilliantly that it is all too easy to say things that are either banal or actually misleading when (as too often happens) one is not thinking about the words one chooses and simply concatenates a series of words and phrases that are currently in popular usage.

The title of this posting captures a handful of the current grab-bag of words and phrases that seem to have become the best current examples of this kind of Orwellism. Their usage is not limited to any type of speaker or writer (academic, pundit, politician, person overheard at bus stop), nor to any political point of view. I have seen examples of these recently in Paul Krugman's columns as well as segments on Fox News. Our own Mike Dorf has used at least one of them recently on this blog, and I am painfully aware that I probably have defaulted to one or more of these (or to others that I have not yet noticed) in recent posts and comments. We can run, but we can't hide. The point, in fact, is that these things are so seductive because we see and hear them all the time.

In some cases, the problem is simply overuse. The first time I heard the phrase, "Stick a fork in 'em, 'cause they're done," it was both hilarious and evocative. That was twenty years ago. Although I don't know where "throw ____ under the bus" comes from, it also has the virtue of expressing something that is readily comprehensible; but its shelf life is, I hope, going to be much less than 20 years. Um, at least I can dream.

The more interesting cases are those where a phrase has a meaning that does not express what the speaker/writer is apparently trying to convey. Late in the first Bush presidency, the question for a few months became how to "jump-start the economy." The Orwellian moment (the verbal equivalent of "jumping the shark," I guess) was when an administration spokesman argued that we should jump-start the economy by doing nothing and allowing the markets to correct themselves. Whether that was the best policy decision is debatable, but the spokesman clearly meant to say that we shouldn't be jump-starting the economy at all. This is the current fate of "it is what it is," which has gone from meaning that there are some facts that we must accept to meaning, apparently, "I don't want to defend what I just said, so I'll say something that sounds jaded and profound." Um, it doesn't.

Thinking about issues of rhetoric in the popular context is, of necessity, to study a constantly moving target. It is not a matter of purity or being grammatically correct. I simply find it interesting to see these things evolve and, admittedly, often find myself grinding my teeth in frustration. I never understood where "keepin' it real" came from, but it quickly became an exquisitely empty phrase. Earlier this week, the tennis star Venus Williams gave it a nice Orwellian twist: "Let's keep it on the real real." I won't be surprised if that becomes the next, well, real thing.