Opinion: Talk turkey, not caviar: George Orwell revised

Supporters of President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021, in what we don’t need to call a coup attempt.

Supporters of President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021, in what we don’t need to call a coup attempt.

Associated Press

This is going to sound like heresy for an English teacher to say, but politicians and other leaders are using too many big words in their interviews and that turns people off. George Orwell warned us about the dangers of something like this in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” and that was decades before social media existed.

Scratch my word “heresy” above and change it to “sin.” “ Heresy” is exactly the type of word that I’m talking, about full of ancient religious background, which is irrelevant. And “sin” would do just as well if not even better in getting the point across: it’s bad.

Here’s another boring windbag word: “coup.”

It’s pronounced “coo” like what two birds do when they are flirting. It’s used by politicians trying to describe what protesters were doing on Jan. 6 when they attacked the U.S. Capitol Building.

Except that “coup” isn’t birds making romantic sounds, it’s people making trouble. It is a French word that means “take over the government.” The full French term is “coup d’etat” which means “take over the state,” i.e., “take over the government.”

Oops, I did it myself. I used “i.e.,” a Latin abbreviation for “id est” which means “that is.”

Why didn’t I just say “that is”? Why did I drag out a Latin reference which only lawyers and professors use?

Who was I trying to impress with “i.e.”? Probably some voice in my head from when I had to write term papers in college. How neurotic. Oops, there I go again, this time with psycho-babble. “Crazy” would do just as well as “neurotic.”

But back to the problem with “coup.” Why couldn’t politicians and leaders just say: “take over the government”? Why do we need the fancy French term “coup”? Who do leaders think they are talking to, anyway? Joan of Arc? Napoleon?

Here’s another big word that we should throw out the window: “narcissist.” Why can’t we simply say “self-centered” or “self-involved”? Why do we need a fancy piece of psycho-babble like “narcissist”?

And while we’re at it, let’s throw out “sociopath,” too. Just say “cold-hearted” or “unfeeling” or “without a conscience.” Those words are not only clear, they’ve got punch.

Let’s make it a trifecta (no, “threesome” is a better word): we should also dump “empathize” into the word-trashcan.

Just say “sympathize.” Granted that “sympathize” is not a high-octane emotion like “empathize,” it’s just a regular-octane emotion. But “sympathize” somehow carries more heart with it than “empathize.” Everybody can sympathize. Not everybody can empathize.

I hear certain politicians say they want to “codify” abortion rights. That sounds like a fishing technique used off the New England coast. Why not simply say make abortion rights “a law” instead of “codify”?

Am I a retired English teacher who is advocating that our leaders become dumb or dumber? Not at all.

I’m just asking that they broaden their audience to include all of us regular folks — not just “the ladies who come and go speaking of Michaelangelo,” to quote a famous poem.

The English usage rule book “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White orders writers to “avoid needless words.”

Let me put it a bit more bluntly for our politicians and leaders than just “avoid needless words”: Be less snooty. Please. Talk turkey, not caviar.

Paul Keane is a retired Vermont English teacher who grew up in New Haven and Hamden.