George Orwell’s Biblical Waggery

In his “Politics and the Engish Language,” George Orwell famously parodied a passage from the King James translation of Ecclesiastes.  Let us examine Orwell’s parody in context.

“Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

“Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

“This is a parody, but not a very gross one. ….”

Let us grant Orwell that “chance and circumstance” befall all humans, which I presume to be the point of the biblical passage.  Let us stipulate as well that Orwell effectively lampooned academic and bureaucratic proclivities and parlance.

However, Orwell called the King James version “good English.”  From this opinion we must all dissent.  Parody and “original” are likewise defective English.

Biblical passage and parody alike are, read closely and literally, misstated.  More than one clause requires the addition of an adverb such as “necessarily” or “always.”  Most races are to the swift(er) runner, if for no other reason than that we determine which runner is swift(er) by who gets to the finish first.  Most battles should be expected to go to the strong(er) side if that is what strength measures.  Likewise, wise men and women will not be wise long if they get no bread;  many men of understanding accumulate riches because they understand how to generate or preserve wealth;  and many men of skill are for that reason patronized or “favoured.”

I cannot be certain which wag coined the catchphrase “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet,” [ butI but I am certain that the waggery is truer than the passage or the parody.  Whether Damon Runyan used the crack in More Than Somewhat or elsewhere, he and others inserted the “always” to make the saying more plausible.

So what the King James Bible misstated Damon Runyon corrected amid a quip.  So what?

So this!  Orwell’s parodic translation repeats the misstatement in the King James Bible!

Please re-read Orwell’s parody.  “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity , but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

Success and failure in competitive activities “exhibits no tendency to be commensurate” with capacity?  Even a casual fan of sports or student of warfare must dissent from this claim.  Indeed, the claim is absurd on its face.  [Please ignore Orwell’s use of “innate,” for we cannot know whether he was mocking sloppy usage or engaging in sloppy usage.  Who believes that swiftness or strength are naturally present at birth?]

In addition, Orwell here uses language that seems to me metaphoric(al) yet need not call a visual image to mind, a calling forth that Orwell singled out as the, not merely a, purpose of metaphors.  I might be able to visualize races going to slower runners or battle scenes, but riches and “favours” defy my poor imagination.

If King James’ passage and Orwell’s parody are each and both defective, the blame for the defect may lie with one of Orwell’s famous rules in “Politics and the English Language:”

3.  If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

[Please ignore Orwell’s failure to cut out “out” twice in the very rule that requires “out” to be excised.]

Both the King James version and Orwell’s version cut out the adverb(s) that one would need to make the versions tolerably sensible.  Orwell’s own rule, applied literally, generated false expressions in “good English” and “modern English of the worst sort.”




3 Responses to “George Orwell’s Biblical Waggery”

  1. kpxdynastyx Says:

    Your argument against Orwell fails because you confuse “defective English” with defective reasoning. The original is not misstated, nor is its English defective. The interpretation is clear (but may not be for someone less astute): timing and luck have much to do with one’s success. Based on that interpretation, which is the majority opinion, there are no misstatements. A case can be made that Orwell’s parody is not a complete and accurate translation of the original, but then again, his intention was to show the difference between good writing (the Bible passage) vs. bad writing (the parody).

    You are making a claim against Orwell that has no grounds to be brought up. It is moot. You are taking the original at face value without interpretation. If you were to argue that should we take the passage and Orwell’s parody at face value, and to argue that the reasoning behind the statements are defective (i.e., ability has more to do with success than time/change), then you may have a case. But that argument would be illogical in the first place.

  2. kpxdynastyx Says:

    Ah, I’ve come back a day later only to find my comment deleted. It seems that I’ve succeeded.

    p.s. ~ you would make a bad law student, so please, don’t go to law school

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