Fear and Loathing in the English Language

In Politics and the English Language George Orwell gives us six rules of writing which, if followed, will prevent us from debasing the very language we use to communicate ideas. The point of the essay was to show that language, particularly English language, was being used in “the defense of the indefensible” by means of obfuscation, euphemism and vague, usually ten-letter-word colloquialisms. This tendency has, unfortunately for all of us, bled from political to everyday speech.

In the law, where clarity is paramount, this process has also taken hold. We have all had experience of what is usually called “legalese,” a euphemism for convoluted and obscure terminology often used in contracts or other legal documents. Few, besides those whose interests are protected by such obscurity, use this label positively and it violates almost all of Orwell’s rules. It is one of the common attacks on lawyers: that they are just there to make the transparent opaque in the interests of the most powerful. It appears that if one is unable to convince – as the users of such language generally fall – they may as well confuse.

Since much of our speech is drenched in meaninglessness when someone is clear, concise and direct it tends to be off-putting and seemingly aggressive. If an attorney communicates to another the succinct list of their clients’ positions or demands, they are often met with anger or resentment from their counterparts. It is often asked why the speaker is being “difficult” or “pushy.” As Richard Dawkins noted in an interview with Slate, “…clarity is threatening”. This particularly applies to female lawyers, whose clarity is an attack on a male dominated field for which language has been used as a tool for repression if not outright oppression through the prism of obfuscation and verbal domination.

One should not lose all hope, though. Lawyers have a choice when dealing with one another, remembering that the field is inherently adversarial. Like politics, there is another feature of modern speech which hinders the effective practice of law: consensus. While in the process of communicating the relative positions of the party’s, attorneys may find commonalities which can be used to negotiate an agreement that can settle a dispute, but doing so does not mean that a consensus has been met.

The most effective communication leads to the best results. Successful lawyers know this and apply it, but it is no way ubiquitous in today’s law firms. The complete professionalization of the practice of law, a long process indeed, has calmed the turbulence of disagreement into the demand for either unhelpful combativeness or overwhelming sensitivity to controversy. The best lawyers are able to navigate these turbulent seas, and guide themselves to port through clear direction and intention. These are the lawyers that may not get interviewed for CNN, itself little more than a mouthpiece of obscurity and consensus, but are quite successful at representing their clients by remembering Orwell’s rules and applying them.

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