Politics and the English Language
"Politics and the English Language" (1946) is an essay by George Orwell which criticises the "ugly and inaccurate" written English of his time and examines the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language. It was originally published in the April 1946 issue of the journal Horizon. The article had been intended for George Weidenfeld's Contact magazine but it was turned down – the magazine wanted reportage. Politics and the English Language was Orwell's last major article for Horizon.
Orwell wrote, "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." Orwell believed that because this writing was intended to hide the truth rather than express it, the language used was necessarily vague or meaningless. This unclear prose was a "contagion" which had spread even to those who had no intent to hide the truth, and it concealed a writer's thoughts from himself and others. Orwell encourages concreteness and clarity instead of vagueness, and individuality over political conformity.
Extracts and analysis
Causes and characteristics of unclear writing
Orwell related what he believed to be a close association between bad prose and oppressive ideology:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless 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.
One of Orwell's major points follows:
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.
The insincerity of the writer perpetuates the decline of the language as people (particularly politicians, Orwell later notes) attempt to disguise their intentions behind euphemisms and convoluted phrasing.
Orwell said that this decline was self-perpetuating. It is easier, he argued, to think with poor English because the language is in decline. And as the language declines, "foolish" thoughts become even easier, reinforcing the original cause:
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks [...] English [...] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Orwell discusses "pretentious diction" and "meaningless words". "Words like PHENOMENON, ELEMENT, INDIVIDUAL (as noun), OBJECTIVE, CATEGORICAL, EFFECTIVE, VIRTUAL, BASIS, PRIMARY, PROMOTE, CONSTITUTE, EXHIBIT, EXPLOIT, UTILIZE, ELIMINATE, LIQUIDATE, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments." "Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English." Under the heading of meaningless words, he says, "In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning." He gives an example from the Poetry Quarterly: "Comfort's catholicity of perception and image, strangely Whitmanesque in range, almost the exact opposite in aesthetic compulsion, continues to evoke that trembling atmospheric accumulative hinting at a cruel, an inexorably serene timelessness . . . Wrey Gardiner scores by aiming at simple bullseyes with precision. Only they are not so simple, and through this contented sadness runs more than the surface bittersweet of resignation." He goes on to say, "Words like ROMANTIC, PLASTIC, VALUES, HUMAN, DEAD, SENTIMENTAL, NATURAL, VITALITY, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader."
Orwell says, "It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say IN MY OPINION IT IS A NOT UNJUSTIFIABLE ASSUMPTION THAT than to say I THINK."
"Translation" of Ecclesiastes
To give an example of what he described, Orwell "translated" 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.
—into "modern English of the worst sort",
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels 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.
Orwell points out that this "translation" contains many more syllables but gives no concrete illustrations as the original did. It contains no vivid, arresting images or phrases.
The headmaster's wife at St Cyprian's School, Mrs. Cicely Vaughan Wilkes (nicknamed "Flip"), taught Orwell English and used the same method to illustrate good writing to her pupils. She would use simple passages from the King James Bible and then "translate" them into poor English to show the clarity and brilliance of the original. Walter John Christie, who followed Orwell to Eton, wrote that she preached the virtues of "simplicity, honesty, and avoidance of verbiage", and pointed out that the qualities Flip most prized were later to be seen in Orwell's writing.
Remedy of Six Rules
Orwell said it was easy for his contemporaries to slip into bad writing of the sort he described and that the temptation to use meaningless or hackneyed phrases was like a "packet of aspirins always at one's elbow". In particular, such phrases are always ready to form the writer's thoughts for him to save him the bother of thinking, or writing, clearly. However, he concluded that the progressive decline of the English language is reversible and offered six rules to help avoid most of the errors in his previous examples of poor writing:
- The first rule of Orwell's Essay as clear above is related to different figures of speech in the English Language. Some of the examples of what Orwell considers breaking this rule include, "ring the changes on, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed". The reason for Orwell's opposition to these, what he calls "dying metaphors", is that he argues that the majority of the times that these types of phrases are being used, they are being used without the knowledge of what is truly being said. Orwell argues in his essay that by using these types of speech and writing it is to make the original meaning of these phrases meaningless, because those speaking and writing these phrases do not have the knowledge of their original meaning. Orwell states that, "Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact".
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.
- Orwell bemoans the fact that "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to 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.
- The writer should not use the English language to manipulate or deceive the reader. Orwell mentions that each of the five is used by people who believe in barbarous things but must communicate them to a civil society. John Rodden asserts, given that much of Orwell's work was polemical, that he sometimes violated these rules and Orwell himself concedes that if you look back through his essay, "for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against".
Orwell criticizes bad writing habits which spread by imitation. He argues that writers must rid themselves of these habits and think more clearly about what they say because thinking clearly "is a necessary first step toward political regeneration".
Orwell chooses five specimen pieces of text, by Harold Laski ("five negatives in 53 words"), Lancelot Hogben (mixed metaphors), an essay on psychology in Politics ("simply meaningless"), a communist pamphlet ("an accumulation of stale phrases") and a reader's letter in Tribune (in which "words and meaning have parted company"). From these, Orwell identifies a "catalogue of swindles and perversions" which he classifies as "dying metaphors", "operators or verbal false limbs", "pretentious diction" and "meaningless words". (see cliches, prolixity, peacock terms and weasel words).
Orwell notes that writers of modern prose tend not to write in concrete terms but use a "pretentious latinized style", (compare Anglish) and he compares an original biblical text with a parody in "modern English" to show what he means. Writers find it is easier to gum together long strings of words than to pick words specifically for their meaning. This is particularly the case in political writing when Orwell notes that "[o]rthodoxy ... seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style". Political speech and writing are generally in defense of the indefensible and so lead to a euphemistic inflated style. Thought corrupts language, and language can corrupt thought. Orwell suggests six elementary rules that if followed will prevent the type of faults he illustrates although "one could keep all of them and still write bad English".
Orwell makes it clear that he has "not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought". He also acknowledges his own shortcomings and states "Look back through this essay and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against".
From the time of his wife's death in March 1945 Orwell had maintained a high work rate, producing some 130 literary contributions, many of them lengthy. Animal Farm had been published in August 1945 and Orwell was experiencing a time of critical and commercial literary success. He was seriously ill in February and was desperate to get away from London to the island of Jura, Scotland, where he wanted to start work on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The essay "Politics and the English Language" was published nearly simultaneously with another of Orwell's essays, "The Prevention of Literature". Both reflect Orwell's concern with truth and how truth depends upon the use of language. Orwell noted the deliberate use of misleading language to hide unpleasant political and military facts and also identified a laxity of language among those he identified as pro-soviet. In The Prevention of Literature he also speculated on the type of literature under a future totalitarian society which he predicted would be formulaic and low grade sensationalism. Around the same time Orwell wrote an unsigned editorial for Polemic in response to an attack from "Modern Quarterly". In this he highlights the double-talk and appalling prose of J. D. Bernal in the same magazine, and cites Edmund Wilson's damnation of the prose of Joseph E. Davies in Mission to Moscow.
In his biography of Orwell, Michael Shelden called the article "his most important essay on style", while Bernard Crick made no reference to the work at all in his original biography, reserving his praise for Orwell's essays in Polemic, which cover a similar political theme. Terry Eagleton praised its demystification of political language but later became disenchanted with Orwell.
Orwell's admonition to avoid using the passive voice has been criticised. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (page 720) refers to three statistical studies of passive versus active sentences in various periodicals, stating: "the highest incidence of passive constructions was 13 percent. Orwell runs to a little over 20 percent in 'Politics and the English Language'. Clearly he found the construction useful in spite of his advice to avoid it as much as possible".
Introductory writing courses frequently cite this essay. A 1999 study found that the essay was reprinted 118 times in 325 editions of 58 readers published between 1946 and 1996 that were intended for use in college-level composition courses.
It is stated that an article from 1981, Carl Freedman's Writing Ideology, and Politics: Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language' and English Composition, set in motion a "wide variety of critiques, reconsiderations, and outright attacks against the plain style" that is argued for in Orwell's essay. The main issue that most critics found with Orwell's argument for simplistic language is "his simplistic faith about thought and language existing in a dialectical relation with one another; others quickly cut to the chase by insisting that politics, rightly considered, meant the insertion of an undercutting whose before every value word the hegemony holds dear". These critics also began to question Orwell for his argument of the absoluteness of the English language, and really question whose values and truths were being represented through the language. While there are many scholars who advocate for Orwell's argument that comes out of "Politics and the English Language", there are also those who see many issues with Orwell's essay. In both Julian's "Orwell's Instructive Errors" and Kogan's "In Celebration of George Orwell on the Fiftieth Anniversary of 'Politics and the English Language'" issues of Orwell's argument are addressed.
Orwell's writings on the English language have had a large impact on classrooms, journalism, and other writing platforms. In Trail's "Teaching Argument and the Rhetoric of Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language'" it is said that "A large part of Orwell's rhetorical approach consists of attempting at every opportunity to acquire reader participation, to involve the reader as an active and engaged consumer of the essay. Popular journalism is full of what may be the inheritance of Orwell's reader involvement devices".
There seem to be many aspects of Orwell's argument from "Politics and the English Language" that have had strong impacts on the way the English language is regarded. In addition to the way in which Orwell's work has impacted the journalism world, this work can also be seen to have had a large impact on the teaching and classroom sphere. Haltom and Ostrom's work, Teaching George Orwell in Karl Rove's World: 'Politics and the English Language' in the 21st Century Classroom, discusses how following of Orwell's six rules of English writing and speaking can have a place in the high school and university setting.
Connection to other works
Readers can observe Orwell's preoccupation with language in protagonist Gordon Comstock's dislike of advertising slogans in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, an early work of Orwell's. This preoccupation is also visible in Homage to Catalonia, and continued as an underlying theme of Orwell's work for the years after World War II.
A perfect example of this development is the way the themes in "Politics and the English Language" anticipate Orwell's development of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four. One analyst, Michael Shelden, calls Newspeak "the perfect language for a society of bad writers (like those Orwell describes in "Politics and the English Language") because it reduces the number of choices available to them". Developing themes Orwell began exploring in this essay, Newspeak first corrupts writers morally, then politically, "since it allows writers to cheat themselves and their readers with ready-made prose".
- I Belong to the Left, p.431
- Shelden 1991, p. 393
- Shelden 1991, p. 56
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- Original text:
- Reformatted for online reading and printing