Politics and the English Language

PG usually places his comments after whatever he excerpts, but he’s making an exception in this case.

Politics and the English Language, an essay written by George Orwell, was first published in 1946, largely in response to what he saw happening both before World War II and during a post-war period in which Russian-backed Communism appeared to be gaining power and influence and a rapid pace. After all, the end of the war left Central and Eastern Europe under Russian control, so from the viewpoint of someone wishing to build an empire, the peace deal was a big gain for the Soviet Union.

One of the common practices of Communist governments and their supporters during this period was to manipulate language in a manner which was, unfortunately, quite effective in influencing large numbers of people.

Here’s a quote that encapsulates much of Orwell’s assessment:

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.

Animal Farm was published shortly after the war ended. 1984 was published in 1949.

To be clear, Orwell doesn’t limit his cautions to Russians or Communists. He points out all sorts of different groups and individuals who distort language for political purposes in order to gain and keep power over others.

In the TPV post immediately before this one chronologically, the CEO of The American Booksellers Association described the shipment of a book to a large numbers of bookstores as a “serious, violent incident.”

Quite an accomplishment for a small stack of dried pulp from a dead tree.

Since PG has dozens of such dangerously violent objects just outside his office door, he will have to tread very carefully the next time he goes to refill his glass with Diet Coke.

From The Orwell Foundation:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

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. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad – I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen – but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:

1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien (sic) to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.

Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression).

2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.

Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossia).

3. On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?

Essay on psychology in Politics (New York).

4. All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic Fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

Communist pamphlet.

5. If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion’s roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as ‘standard English’. When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o’clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma’amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens!

Letter in Tribune.

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. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged.

Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes ontake up the cudgels fortoe the lineride roughshod overstand shoulder to shoulder withplay into the hands ofno axe to grindgrist to the millfishing in troubled waterson the order of the dayAchilles’ heelswan songhotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a ‘rift’, for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

Operators, or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperativemilitate againstprove unacceptablemake contact withbe subject togive rise togive grounds forhave the effect ofplay a leading part (roleinmake itself felttake effectexhibit a tendency toserve the purpose of, etc. etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as breakstopspoilmendkill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb such as proveserveformplayrender. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard tothe fact thatby dint ofin view ofin the interests ofon the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved from anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desiredcannot be left out of accounta development to be expected in the near futuredeserving of serious considerationbrought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.

Link to the rest at The Orwell Foundation

6 thoughts on “Politics and the English Language”

  1. The Orwell Foundation’s prose is almost as vague as their examples, but if I understand what they are trying to say I can’t disagree with them.

    It comes down to common writing advice: use the clearest wording available.

    • ‘The Orwell Foundation’ did not write the essay in the OP. George Orwell did. And the advice he gives was not at all common at the time when he wrote this piece.

  2. A rift is a valley/gap created when a previously unified mass breaks and the parts go their own separate ways.

    I don’t think it is a dying metaphor. If anything it is a very timely import from geology into politics.

    • At the time when Orwell was writing, ‘rift’ had become political jargon, and was used thoughtlessly by people who did not think about the literal meaning of the word and often did not even know it. Almost any difference between factions, even a minor and temporary disagreement, could be called a rift: probably because it is a short word that fits more neatly in headlines than the words that accurately described what was going on.

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