At the chalkface: A funny tinge

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

He cites such things as “meaningless words”, “verbal false limbs”, “dying metaphors”, “exhausted idioms” and the sheer “lying”, consciously or not, of so much political speech

I’m browsing in a bookshop in Piccadilly and buy, for tuppence, Orwell’s pamphlet Politics and the English Language. I read it in the lovely, winter light of St James Square. The writing is sharp, fresh, lucid – and still completely relevant.

“When the general atmosphere is bad, when politics is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia – language must suffer.”

Or vice-versa.

He cites such things as “meaningless words”, “verbal false limbs”, “dying metaphors”, “exhausted idioms” and the sheer “lying”, consciously or not, of so much political speech. It is the job of teachers – and columnists – to keep eternal vigilance on all this – to use a very “exhausted” phrase.

So what would he have made of BBC’s Politics Live last week?

Labour’s “gang of eight” are preening themselves at the launch of their new breakaway Independence Group. Angela Smith, a member of this posse, says that anti-Semitism and racism are key reasons for quitting.

“It’s not just about being Black or a funny tinge ... you know, different – B, errr from the BME community.”

Eh? Did I hear that right? Yep. The wife confirms this. And there’s a Twitter storm. What a complete car crash of a sentence!

She’s had time to consider her words and this is all she can come up with? This is a crucial launch. Her spin-doctors must be shooting themselves.

Let’s let Orwell loose on it. Where do we start? “A funny tinge”. “Funny” is lazy, tired, clapped out. What is it trying to convey?

Peculiar, odd, amusing, strange, abnormal? Who knows? And “tinge”? We’re in very murky territory. You don’t really want to go there. There are echoes of “our tinted friends”, common in golf clubs and saloon bars. Boris Johnson’s “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles” are in the mix – and of course the ubiquitous Farage. Put the two words together and the subtext is surreal, morally hilarious. Is it from the Pete and Dud “funny” sketch? Or is it Alan Partridge? It’s pure, flailing Partridge.

Or is it a Freudian slip? Or just a silly, innocent mistake? Or has she been told it’s a vote winner? Is she flirting with Tommy Robinson’s constituency?

Or is she just profoundly dim?

The whole stuttering sentence is insecure and out of control.

She quickly attempts a little damage limitation. She Twitters a spin-doctor’s message – something about “fighting racism, wherever she finds it”. Her language has betrayed her. She has failed the Orwell test.

Meanwhile, all teachers can do is apply it to all toxic cant, wherever we find it.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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