Last week I wrote about how confusing things can get if we start trying to get around a mathematical symbol like “=”. One commenter specifically pointed out that whether we follow the illogic of the original problem (you know, as in 2-6) or whether we use the mathematically valid workaround of function notation, with a little creativity the answer can be absolutely anything.
The same applies to language.
Think about the word, “equal”. It’s one we enjoy throwing around these days. Equality is very much in vogue. Everyone is claiming equality to everyone else on whatever criteria they can come up with.
And that’s very well and good, except that it’s not true.
When one mentions George Orwell, most people immediately think of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But a few years earlier Orwell had written another little book, a novella titled Animal Farm. Nineteen Eighty-Fouris undoubtedly Orwell’s master work, with it’s terrifying depiction of a society where every citizen is watched so closely that even talking in your sleep can get you arrested and where the rulers are so confident in their power that they entertain themselves by allowing individuals the illusion of freedom and rebellion, only so that breaking them later is that much more devastating. It is a warning of where we can end up if we sit back and let those in power have too much.
But more significant in my eyes is Orwell’s little fairy tale, as he called it, for Animal Farm shows us just how easily society can reach that state. Animal Farm, for those of you who’ve never read it, is a fable about a bunch of farm animals who rebel against their human master, run him off the farm, and start working the land for themselves.
…and initially that was all I was going to say about that. I don’t want to sully this blog with local politics, which can really take anything good and utterly corrupt it (but I suppose that’s true of local politics everywhere, isn’t it?)
But last week there was a new development that piqued my interest. Someone said something that got me thinking about the meaning of words, and George Orwell, and the abuse of language to manipulate people. And my hammer started vibrating (and if you know anything about hammer-lore you’ll know that means it’s time to whack something).
Just in case you’ve never heard of this book before (you barbarian), a few quick facts: Eric Arthur Blair, under the name of George Orwell, wrote it in the late 1940s. He died shortly after publishing it. He wrote a few other novels during his life, but none so famous as Animal Farm, which preceded Nineteen Eighty-Four and is about a bunch of farm animals who rebel against their master and start running the farm for themselves but is actually a satirical allegory of the rise of communism in post-revolutionary Russia.
Both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four carry the same message: they want to warn us of the danger of not thinking for ourselves and giving too much power to those who govern over us. According to Wikipedia these two books together have sold more copies than any two books by any other twentieth-century author.
Most people in the English-speaking world are forced at one time or another to read Animal Farm during high school (I can recite significant portions of Animal Farm from memory – occupational hazard of being an English teacher), which is a shame, really, as they end up hating what is really a delightful little novella. On the other hand, for some reason people think there’s something wrong with them if they have not yet read Nineteen Eighty-four, or at least, that’s the only conclusion I can draw from the fact that it’s the book most people have lied about having read.
If you haven’t read either of these, but are planning to still do so and don’t want me to spoil it, you might want to stop reading about here. If you’re not planning to read them, read on – at least next time you lie about having read it you’ll sound a bit more informed 😉