Thursday, 9 November 2017

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell.

Politics and the English Language is an essay by George Orwell first published in Horizon in April 1946. As Orwell essays go, this one, I feel, is especially dense. Worth it, of course, but not a quick and easy read despite the fact it's just 12 pages.

When I wrote about the last Orwell essay I read, The Prevention of Literature, I said I could see his thoughts forming for Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's the same case for Politics and the English Language. Orwell begins by remarking on the perceived decline of the English language, linking the decline with political and economic forces, and arguing "It [the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts". If the two are linked, and the decline is reversible, then by making attempts to actually reverse it, perhaps the political outlook will be improved. He goes on to give five examples of published passages to argue that -
Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.
He then identifies several problems with modern writing (giving, in his words, a "catalogue of swindles and perversions": "dying metaphors", "operators or verbal false limbs" (padding, for example), "pretentious diction", and "meaningless words". To give a further example, he famously translates a verse from Ecclesiastes to illustrate his point - here's the original (Ecclesiastes 9: 11):
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.
And Orwell's translation into "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.
The point of it is to show how the second translation becomes ugly and excessive, the beauty and simplicity of the first from the King James' Bible essentially lost. He adds, "It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think." Orwell then gives writers an invaluable tip:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Now, to politics. Political writing, Orwell believes, is invariably ugly and,
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible... Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’....  A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.
Returning to the original statement, language and thought are linked: corrupt language leads to corrupt thought, and one encourages the other. Happily, however, Orwell is firm in his belief that it is not inevitable and can be overcome. The rules are as follows:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
He then concludes,
I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.

I must say it's a miserable task to write something about an essay on bad writing, it made me rather self-conscious! That aside, I do believe this is an essential essay on political writing and is good not only for writers, but also for readers as it is another tool to help us weed out the good from the bad, and the lies and deceit from the truth.

And that was my 46th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week, another essay by George Orwell - The Sporting Spirit.


  1. as much as i admire Orwell, i'm not sure i go along with all of his statements... writing is like music: it 's there to express ideas... i gather O is saying that that words determine thought, which i think is putting the cart before the horse... there may be elegant and inelegant ways of expressing ideas, but i believe the ideas take precedence... even so, O's writing is accurate and direct; a pleasure to read...

    1. I took Orwell as referring just to political journalism and the like. I think now a lot of it is very shoddy and manipulative (even my own favourite paper tries my patience sometimes). This advice certainly shouldn't be taken for other forms of writing, I agree, and I don't think Orwell would have meant it too - everything maybe a little too sparse if that was the case :)

  2. i forgot: if you've got some time to waste, i've started a blog:

    1. I'm very pleased to hear it - I often wished you had a blog! Thank you for letting me know :)

      I think, by the way, I might have deleted one of your comments - I deleted a duplicate one and I'm sure I deleted more than I should. I was on the phone when I was doing it, should have been more careful. Perhaps though I didn't, or perhaps it wasn't your comment!


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