From his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” some key passages that perhaps have relevance to our recent controversy over the quixotic Austrians attempting to resurrect (what they claim is) the original meaning of the term “inflation” (all bold is mine, and I’m not going to italicize the whole thing so you can see Orwell’s original):
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”
We can argue about whether the above applies to the Austrian fight over the term “inflation,” but I want to make two specific points:
(1) The general arguments people like Gene Callahan are giving–saying the Austrians are analogous to people pining to call the sun a planet because apparently that’s what term they used in 1400–would apply against Orwell too. So is he wrong for chafing against political euphemisms? Am I out of line for objecting to the term “collateral damage” even though everybody nowadays “knows what that means”?
(2) Guys like Nick Rowe and Scott Sumner are quite openly saying they want to pick terminology to describe monetary policy in ways that won’t scare off the general public. I think everybody knows that if you had polled Americans in the fall of 2008, “Hey, do you think Bernanke should create another $1.5 trillion in new money electronically by buying up government bonds and mortgage-backed securities from the institutional traders who currently hold them?” that a strong majority would answer “no.” Look at the huge public reaction against TARP, which occurred at the same time the Fed began its “extraordinary” operations. So this is definitely political, on both sides. It’s not that the Austrians are injecting ideology into the mainstream’s objective science.