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What Lawyers Learned from Orwell

George Orwell had in mind politicians, not lawyers, when he coined the term "doublespeak." But Orwell's writings on language and politics certainly held lessons for a profession known for its use of arcane legalese and esoteric Latin. In a new research paper, University of Louisville law professor Judith D. Fischer argues that lawyers have listened to Orwell's lessons on language -- but only up to a point.

In her paper, "Why George Orwell's Ideas About Language Still Matter for Lawyers," Fischer discusses Orwell's two best-known works on language. In the essay Politics and the English Language and the novel 1984, Orwell explored both the use of language and the dangers of totalitarianism. Together, these works set out the twin themes that writers should express themselves in plain English and that "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness" conceal clear thought and become tools of totalitarianism.

The good news, Fischer argues, is that lawyers have heeded Orwell's advocacy of plain English, to the extent that "some legal writing experts have explicitly acknowledged their debt to Orwell." Citing examples from contracts to courts to the SEC, she refers to the drive for plain English in the law as "a movement." "Today, legal writing experts nearly all promote the same ideas about plain English that Orwell did," she says.

But when it comes to euphemism, Orwell's teachings "have been heeded mainly in their breach," Fischer contends. "Numerous instances of misleading and duplicitous language exist in contemporary American laws and discourse about the law." Take, for example, the "almost Orwellian" USA PATRIOT Act passed in the wake of Sept. 11.

"Placing the word patriot in the act's popular title deflects attention from the act's 'encroach[ment] on civil liberties' by allowing, for example, searches and surveillance without a prior finding of probably cause. Moreover, naming terrorism as the enemy adds the sort of vagueness Orwell disliked: it will be difficult to know when we have won a war against an abstract noun."

Other examples from law of euphemism, evasion and doublespeak: "tort reform," "death taxes," "faith-based initiatives," "Clear Skies Initiative" and "Healthy Forests Restoration Act." By recognizing and avoiding the kinds of perversions Orwell decried, Fischer argues, "lawyers can elevate legal language and public discourse."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on June 14, 2007 at 04:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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