Lewis Carroll anticipated the word games that demagogues play when he had Humpty Dumpty say, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less." There are a lot of Humpty Dumptys around in our time, turning words inside out to turn the moral order upside down. They call vice "liberation" and infanticide "health care." A few years ago, a major chain of bookshops listed a book on how to commit suicide under the category "Self-Improvement."
George Orwell updated Lewis Carroll in his brooding book 1984. By now "Orwellian" has become a neologism for Humpty Dumpty talk. In a famous essay called "Politics and the English Language," Orwell wrote: "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."
Foolish thoughts can also be criminal and destructive. Recently the press reported the death of a retired Massachusetts congressman who, despite having been censured for perverse and predatory sexual offences with a youth, was re-elected to office and given major leadership offices. One senator called him "a role model." The New York Times and the Boston Globe obituaries said that he was survived by his husband. His husband. The syntax reminded us that we are a couple of decades past 1984 and language rot is now a received style. It is not just Humpty Dumpty silliness: It is a deliberate attempt to alter reality by altering the language which describes reality.
Orwell optimistically thought that the decay is reversible, but "to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration." By definition, however, regeneration is not the desire of the degenerate. The clarity of thought urged, for instance, by Pope Benedict is considered scandalous. The historian Toynbee said that civilizations die, not by invasion, but by suicide. Under the guise of sophistication, the moral lights of culture begin to dim when wordplay is considered an amusing game and not a sinister plot.
Gazing upon the ruins of Timgad in North Africa, a city founded as Thamugas by the emperor Trajan in 100 a.d., and destroyed by the Vandals after it had lost its cultural balance, Hilaire Belloc wrote: "We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile."
Fr. George Rutler is pastor of the Church of Our Saviour in New York City. He is also the author of A Crisis of Saints.