From "New Religion and New Irreligion," an April 4, 1908 piece in the Illustrated London News:
In its fuller context:
Our generation professes to be scientific and particular about the things it says; but unfortunately it is never scientific and particular about the words in which it says them. It is difficult to believe that people who are obviously careless about language can really be very careful about anything else. If an astronomer is careless about words, one cannot help fancying that he may be careless about stars. If a botanist is vague about words, he may be vague about plants. The modern man, regarding himself as a second Adam, has undertaken to give all the creatures new names; and when we discover that he is silly about the names, the thought will cross our minds that he may be silly about the creatures. And never before, I should imagine, in the intellectual history of the world have words been used with so idiotic an indifference to their actual meaning. A word has no loyalty; it can be betrayed into any service or twisted to any treason.
Chesterton goes on to give examples, 110 years old now, of one of my least favorite moves in the political rhetoric playbook: claiming one's position is the truer form of one's opponents' position, e.g. this recent op-ed asserting that supporting abortion is more pro-life than opposing it. This is surely an iteration of "no true Scotsman," but if it's been named I'm unaware of it. "Of all the expressions of our current indifference to the meaning of the words," Chesterton writes later, "I think that the most irritating is this cool substitution of one kind of definition for another." That, as it happens, does have a name.
Before moving on to the religious controversy surrounding the "New Theology" of R.J. Campbell, Chesterton concludes:
"Mr. Campbell has excellent brains," Chesterton continues, "but thinks it more advanced and modern not to use them. . . . He is guided in his choice of phrases by mere aimless sentimentalism." We cheat ourselves when we cheat with our language. We were made for finer things. Our minds are precision instruments.
Chesterton here anticipates some of the arguments in Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" by almost forty years. Writing in 1946, Orwell argued that "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," and devoted the bulk of his essay to examples which he surgically dissects. Compare:
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Slovenliness is a good word for it. Not chaos, not anarchy, but an utter "you know what I mean" indifference to good order–a linguistic dorm room. A pervasive slovenliness degrades not just political discourse but all communication today. I'm not talking about emojis, slang, and memes, but rather the intellectual path of least resistance onto which all of us route our thoughts, "gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug." The appeal, Orwell writes, is that this mode of communication, this way of thinking, is easy.
But will it lead us to truth?
Quick: What is the difference between a country and a nation? Between enhanced interrogation and torture? Between racism, prejudice, and bigotry? Between faith and a faith? What is love? What is violence? What does the word free mean in free speech, free country, free love, free will, free with any purchase?