Thursday, June 14, 2007

In the corner of the blogosphere I frequent, a set of military guidelines for U.S. soldiers in Iraq during World War II has been making the rounds, and (Andrew Sullivan has referred to it and its modern counterpart a few times, and John at Dymaxion World gets into it and links to LGM.)

They've done the legwork of making the necessary "Hah, those boneheads in charge of the U.S. sure have regressed!" commentary so there's no need for me to get out a thesaurus. The thing about it that seems most interesting to me besides that is the language used 60 years ago in an official government document. It jumps out at me, because even though all the words are the same (for the most part — "Muslim" is rarely if ever spelled with an o these days), even ignoring how the current Mess O'Potamia is going, it's obvious from looking at the pamphlet that it was written in the first half of this century (the first half of the twentieth century, of course... we're in the first half of "this century"). Just read it, and you can practially hear it being recited from a radio studio by a deep, accentless male voice with carefully controlled tone and no background noise except maybe some faint static.

My first thought on reading the bulleted list LGM found was, "No one really talks like that." But, no, that's exactly how people talk, it's just not how people write.

The non-political part of Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" seems relevant here. I tend to think of stuff like this as lazy writing, or writing by people with inadequate experience or training, rather than anything particularly totalitarian. Sure, we see plenty of news reports that suspiciously resemble press releases, but we also see plenty of management jargon that confuses more than it illuminates. (I think this means I've been corrupted by "The Man," but I'm not sure. I do see a whole lot of what Orwell complained about in really banal situations in my job, on the hopefully rare occasions that I generate it the reason usually is laziness... Besides, where I work, "The Man" wanders around musing about how great it was when people said and seriously meant "don't trust anyone over 30," so I don't feel too threatened by him particularly.) In addition to the hundreds of Google hits that simply aggregated jokes about it, this seems like one of a relative few that take it seriously, so it was kind of interesting.

And cultural references? Fughetaboudit!

Well, no, I don't. "Lawrence of Arabia" was released 20 years before I was born.

In an appropriate coincidence, talk turned to "Moby Dick" for a while at work today. Consensus was that it was boring, but someone pointed out something I never thought about too much: the multi-page passages of description of life on a boat weren't included because he was paid by the word like Dickens, or because Melville was sleeping with his editor like Robert Jordan, but quite simply because people didn't have TVs. Or for that matter, any kind of visual media that could be created in less than eight hours. As much as it makes me pity those poor primitives in the 19th century, the pages of description of whale fat were essential to readers who didn't live within walking distance of a harbor.

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