Stephen Dunn

George Orwell Sucks
September 6, 2013 Dunn Stephen

George Orwell Sucks


How can a word evocative of so much pleasure,. both adult and infantile, find itself used – by almost everybody – in the pejorative?  “That really sucks,” my friend said after his work was rejected by a journal, or, as I heard last night on television, “As a super star, he sucks.” Several times every day we hear such mindless disapproval. The word has become as debased as the vile “awesome,” which is used to suggest approval. “That ice cream is awesome,” someone said to me recently, clear evidence that person had never experienced anything like awe, which is a rare phenomenon and tends to make us silent. Have the misusers of “suck” never experienced the delights of sucking or of being sucked?  I propose that from here on “He sucks” and “She sucks” be used as words of praise.

The word needs to be restored to the ranks of etymological respectability. Every time we use it, we should be mindful of the various titillations it suggests, or at least of its importance for survival. We tend not to say, “’That baby really sucks,” but if we did we wouldn’t be saying we’d seen a bad baby. We’d merely be referring to what was natural and utilitarian. Even the Puritan in us would approve. We’re allowed to suck for survival. It is good for the family and therefore good for the body politic as well. You would think that fact would go some distance toward giving the word a positive connotation. 

But it hasn’t.

I’m reminded of something Eduardo Galeano wrote: “The church says the body is a sin. The body says: I am a fiesta.” Titillation, of course, is in cahoots with disorder, if not chaos. In some ways it’s the enemy of the work day. Some of us could suck away an entire week. 

My guess is that the pejorative use of sucks stems more from homophobia than from capitalism or our Puritan heritage; in particular, from attitudes toward male homosexuality. To name someone by the epithet that begins with a “c” is much more insulting than to say “he sucks.” The “c” word remains taboo in polite conversation. I’d argue that it stems from the historical disgust the culture registers when it imagines two men in the act. Fellatio, by contrast, lacks a certain Anglo-Saxon punch. It sounds Italian, something to enjoy with a good bottle of Barolo. Let us go now, you and I, and commit fellatio under a starry sky.  Cops might not want to let on that they know the word. You’re unlikely to hear, “Duane, we got us a fellator here, let’s run him in.”

It’s interesting to note that the negative use of sucks has no stigma attached to it. Children say it over dinner. Their parents nod. That cheese souffle really did suck. The whole family tacitly agrees it was as distasteful as a man sucking another man’s penis. Now pass the pasta, Billy.

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because one’s thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

That’s George Orwell, from his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” I’m sure  Orwell would not want me to say that here in 2013,  he’d be turning over in his grave. Literally, I’d have used dead language to indicate that his wisdom has not been heeded. But he might be more upset by the prevalence of foolishness in our thinking than by cliches.

Cliches once had value, even precision. A person  who employs them most likely hasn’t freshly considered what he is saying, but at least he’s chosen something that once was wonderful. After all, “quiet as a mouse” once articulated an aspect of silence. The person who goes around saying this or that sucks not only isn’t thinking, he isn’t phrasing. I’d call him one of the vulgarizers of language.

I have friends who publicly call people “scumbags,” but do not know that a scumbag is a used condom.

Almost everyone I know says “cool” about something that they like, thus leveling everything that they like. They make little or no effort to register nuance or gradation. In this way “cool” is as vulgar as the misuse of sucks. It’s a scumbag of a word, its user unconscious that he’s using something spent.

About such speech, Orwell said,

“The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself…. he may be unconscious of what he’s saying, as one is when one utters responses in church., and this reduced rate of consciousness, if not ndispensable,  is at any rate favorable to political conformity.”

 Orwell insisted that language we allow to go unexamined leaves us vulnerable to manipulation by despots and the banality of society-speak. Yet he believed the process was reversible. I’d like to believe so, too. Maybe if I start to hear people say, “That movie sucked. You really have to see it,” or “That politician doesn’t suck; I don’t trust him,” then I could start to believe that there’s a greater agreement between language and reality, not to mention that the world might be a safer place for sucking, and thus finally more humane.

Stephen Dunn’s most recent book is Whereas. He is the recipient of many awards including the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Frostburg, Maryland, with his wife Barbara Hurd.