George Orwell thought not. So should foreign words and phrases really be verboten, or can they add a certain je ne sais quoi to your magnum opus?
Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language is a good read for anyone interested in the art of clear and truthful written communication. I recommend it as a wake-up call to make you aware of how easily language can be debased, or worse still, manipulated to disguise vicious deeds and realities. Although the original essay was written in 1946, its message is becoming ever more relevant. But enough of the political soapboxing: on to the meat of the matter.
What did Orwell say about using foreign words?
Politics and the English Language has become something of a sacred text for professional writers, because in it Orwell set out six rules for good writing, which we should resort to, “…when instinct fails”. In this post we are concerned with rule number five, namely:
“Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
But hold on: doesn’t much of the English language have foreign origins?
Yes. On the whole I completely agree with Orwell on rule number five, especially in the case of jargon words or scientific terminology (and I say this as someone with a background in scientific research). But I waver when it comes to the issue of preferring “everyday English” to foreign words or phrases, not least because so much of our everyday English is derived from other languages. After all, if I stuck to Orwell’s rule I’d never be able to set an agenda (Latin), write about the pleasures of eating yogurt (Turkish), or lay a baby down to sleep in a cot (Hindi).
In fact, I’d argue that where a concept or object can be described more pithily by a foreign phrase, the good writer has carte blanche (see what I did there?) to import said phrase. Here’s an example: everyday English lacks a vivid, unambiguous word or phrase to describe the sensation of heat caused by chilli. We English speakers often resort to unsatisfactory bodges like ‘hot’ or ‘spicy’. ‘Hot’ could also refer to temperature, and more usually does; ‘spicy’ is a better descriptor of aromatic qualities rather than of chilli’s painful kick. So we should certainly look to other languages if we want to be able to describe the experience of chilli heat more precisely. In general, this way of using foreign words enriches our language and our quality of thought.
Are there any good reasons to be cautious about using foreign words in your writing?
Again, yes. There are two. The first is that using foreign terms, especially if they’re Latin or French, can easily make you sound like a pompous arse. But perhaps that’s the effect you’re looking for. In which case, go right ahead with your folie de grandeur. And don’t forget to italicise the foreign words just to emphasise your superiority over your readers.
The second reason is the one we all need to know: unless you’re comprehensively polyglot, foreign words and phrases are so easy to get wrong that it’s almost the default condition. This is especially the case when you’ve never seen a phrase written down and your knowledge of it comes exclusively from spoken English.
This is why the internet is littered with people who run ‘amuck’ (instead of amok) and facts which are ‘persay’ unimportant (instead of ‘per se’). On social media, users tend to form ‘clicks’ (rather than cliques). The other day I even saw someone I know to be a competent writer use the word ‘kahunas’ for the intended ‘cojones’.
I’m not mocking anybody’s mistakes here. If you and I haven’t made these selfsame errors, we’ve certainly made ones like it. And worse yet, we’ve probably not been aware of them. I’m certainly in no position to point the finger of criticism: I don’t even know what a kahuna is.
Instead, my message is this: don’t be afraid of foreign words. But unless you’re totally confident that you know how to correctly spell and use them, always look ’em up. If you don’t have access to a reliable reference source, stick with what you know.
What would Orwell have thought of my advice? I reckon he’d be okay with it. After all, his sixth and final rule of good writing was this:
“Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
And as he showed us through his life and work, anyone can follow rules, but it takes real cojones to break them.
Politics and the English Language is available as part of a collection of Orwell’s Essays published by Penguin Modern Classics. This collection is well worth reading if you’ve never had the pleasure, or revisiting even if you have.