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Politics and the English Language

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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 on , take up the cudgels for , toe the line , ride roughshod over , stand shoulder to shoulder with , play into the hands of , no axe to grind , grist to the mill , fishing in troubled waters , on the order of the day , Achilles’ heel , swan song , hotbed . 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 inoperative , militate against , prove unacceptable , make contact with , be subject to , give rise to , give grounds for , have the effect of , play a leading part ( role ) in , make itself felt , take effect , exhibit a tendency to , serve the purpose of , etc. etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break , stop , spoil , mend , kill , a verb becomes a phrase , made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb such as prove , serve , form , play , render . 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 to , the fact that , by dint of , in view of , in the interests of , on the hypothesis that ; and the ends of sentences are saved from anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired , cannot be left out of account , a development to be expected in the near future , deserving of serious consideration , brought to a satisfactory conclusion , and so on and so forth.

Pretentious diction . Words like phenomenon , element , individual (as noun), objective , categorical , effective , virtual , basic , primary , promote , constitute , exhibit , exploit , utilize , eliminate , liquidate , are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biassed judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making , epic , historic , unforgettable , triumphant , age-old , inevitable , inexorable , veritable , are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour, its characteristic words being: realm , throne , chariot , mailed fist , trident , sword , shield , buckler , banner , jackboot , clarion . Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac , ancien régime , deus ex machina , mutatis mutandis , status quo , Gleichschaltung , Weltanschauung , are used to give an air of culture and elegance. 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. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite , ameliorate , predict , extraneous , deracinated , clandestine , sub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers[1]. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing ( hyena , hangman , cannibal , petty bourgeois , these gentry , lackey , flunkey , mad dog , White Guard , etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind ( deregionalize , impermissible , extramarital , non-fragmentatory and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

Meaningless words . 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[2]. 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. When one critic writes, ‘The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality’, while another writes, ‘The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness’, the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living , he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy , socialism , freedom , patriotic , realistic , justice , have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy , not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot , The Soviet press is the freest in the world , The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution , are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class , totalitarian , science , progressive , reactionary , bourgeois , equality .

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes :

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.

Here it is in modern English:

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.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit 3 above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations – race, battle, bread – dissolve into the vague phrase ‘success or failure in competitive activities’. This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing – no one capable of using phrases like ‘objective’ consideration of contemporary phenomena’ – would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyse these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains 49 words but only 60 syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains 38 words of 90 syllables: 18 of its words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (‘time and chance’) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its 90 syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes .

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in 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 attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. 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 . If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry – when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech – it is natural to fall into a pretentious, latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash – as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song , the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot – it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in 53 words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip alien for akin, making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with , is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means. (3), if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4) the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea-leaves blocking a sink. In (5) words and meaning have almost parted company. People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning – they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another – but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. 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? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions, and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White Papers and the speeches of Under-Secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial atrocities , iron heel , blood-stained tyranny , free peoples of the world , stand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. 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. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence 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. 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’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines 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. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find – this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify – that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption , leaves much to be desired , would serve no good purpose , a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind , are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. 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. By this morning’s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he ‘felt impelled’ to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence that I see: ‘(The Allies) have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany’s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe.’ You see, he ‘feels impelled’ to write – feels, presumably, that he has something new to say – and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases ( lay the foundations , achieve a radical transformation ) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned , which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of fly-blown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence[3], to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defence of the English language implies more than this, and perhaps it is best to start by saying what it does not imply.

To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style’. On the other hand it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meanings as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose – not simply accept – the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impression one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do. iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active. v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.

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 recognize 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.

Horizon, April 1946

This material remains under copyright in some jurisdictions, including the US, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Orwell Estate .

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Interesting Literature

A Summary and Analysis of George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) is one of the best-known essays by George Orwell (1903-50). As its title suggests, Orwell identifies a link between the (degraded) English language of his time and the degraded political situation: Orwell sees modern discourse (especially political discourse) as being less a matter of words chosen for their clear meanings than a series of stock phrases slung together.

You can read ‘Politics and the English Language’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Orwell’s essay below.

‘Politics and the English Language’: summary

Orwell begins by drawing attention to the strong link between the language writers use and the quality of political thought in the current age (i.e. the 1940s). He argues that if we use language that is slovenly and decadent, it makes it easier for us to fall into bad habits of thought, because language and thought are so closely linked.

Orwell then gives five examples of what he considers bad political writing. He draws attention to two faults which all five passages share: staleness of imagery and lack of precision . Either the writers of these passages had a clear meaning to convey but couldn’t express it clearly, or they didn’t care whether they communicated any particular meaning at all, and were simply saying things for the sake of it.

Orwell writes that this is a common problem in current political writing: ‘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.’

Next, Orwell elaborates on the key faults of modern English prose, namely:

Dying Metaphors : these are figures of speech which writers lazily reach for, even though such phrases are worn-out and can no longer convey a vivid image. Orwell cites a number of examples, including toe the line , no axe to grind , Achilles’ heel , and swansong . Orwell’s objection to such dying metaphors is that writers use them without even thinking about what the phrases actually mean, such as when people misuse toe the line by writing it as tow the line , or when they mix their metaphors, again, because they’re not interested in what those images evoke.

Operators or Verbal False Limbs : this is when a longer and rather vague phrase is used in place of a single-word (and more direct) verb, e.g. make contact with someone, which essentially means ‘contact’ someone. The passive voice is also common, and writing phrases like by examination of instead of the more direct by examining . Sentences are saved from fizzling out (because the thought or idea being conveyed is not particularly striking) by largely meaningless closing platitudes such as greatly to be desired or brought to a satisfactory conclusion .

Pretentious Diction : Orwell draws attention to several areas here. He states that words like objective , basis , and eliminate are used by writers to dress up simple statements, making subjective opinion sound like scientific fact. Adjectives like epic , historic , and inevitable are used about international politics, while writing that glorifies war is full of old-fashioned words like realm , throne , and sword .

Foreign words and phrases like deus ex machina and mutatis mutandis are used to convey an air of culture and elegance. Indeed, many modern English writers are guilty of using Latin or Greek words in the belief that they are ‘grander’ than home-grown Anglo-Saxon ones: Orwell mentions Latinate words like expedite and ameliorate here. All of these examples are further proof of the ‘slovenliness and vagueness’ which Orwell detects in modern political prose.

Meaningless Words : Orwell argues that much art criticism and literary criticism in particular is full of words which don’t really mean anything at all, e.g. human , living , or romantic . ‘Fascism’, too, has lost all meaning in current political writing, effectively meaning ‘something not desirable’ (one wonders what Orwell would make of the word’s misuse in our current time!).

To prove his point, Orwell ‘translates’ a well-known passage from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes into modern English, with all its vagueness of language. ‘The whole tendency of modern prose’, he argues, ‘is away from concreteness.’ He draws attention to the concrete and everyday images (e.g. references to bread and riches) in the Bible passage, and the lack of any such images in his own fabricated rewriting of this passage.

The problem, Orwell says, is that it is too easy (and too tempting) to reach for these off-the-peg phrases than to be more direct or more original and precise in one’s speech or writing.

Orwell advises every writer to ask themselves four questions (at least): 1) what am I trying to say? 2) what words will express it? 3) what image or idiom will make it clearer? and 4) is this image fresh enough to have an effect? He proposes two further optional questions: could I put it more shortly? and have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Orthodoxy, Orwell goes on to observe, tends to encourage this ‘lifeless, imitative style’, whereas rebels who are not parroting the ‘party line’ will normally write in a more clear and direct style.

But Orwell also argues that such obfuscating language serves a purpose: much political writing is an attempt to defend the indefensible, such as the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan (just one year before Orwell wrote ‘Politics and the English Language’), in such a euphemistic way that the ordinary reader will find it more palatable.

When your aim is to make such atrocities excusable, language which doesn’t evoke any clear mental image (e.g. of burning bodies in Hiroshima) is actually desirable.

Orwell argues that just as thought corrupts language, language can corrupt thought, with these ready-made phrases preventing writers from expressing anything meaningful or original. He believes that we should get rid of any word which has outworn its usefulness and should aim to use ‘the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning’.

Writers should let the meaning choose the word, rather than vice versa. We should think carefully about what we want to say until we have the right mental pictures to convey that thought in the clearest language.

Orwell concludes ‘Politics and the English Language’ with six rules for the writer to follow:

i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

‘Politics and the English Language’: analysis

In some respects, ‘Politics and the English Language’ advances an argument about good prose language which is close to what the modernist poet and thinker T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) argued for poetry in his ‘ A Lecture on Modern Poetry ’ and ‘Notes on Language and Style’ almost forty years earlier.

Although Hulme and Orwell came from opposite ends of the political spectrum, their objections to lazy and worn-out language stem are in many ways the same.

Hulme argued that poetry should be a forge where fresh metaphors are made: images which make us see the world in a slightly new way. But poetic language decays into common prose language before dying a lingering death in journalists’ English. The first time a poet described a hill as being ‘clad [i.e. clothed] with trees’, the reader would probably have mentally pictured such an image, but in time it loses its power to make us see anything.

Hulme calls these worn-out expressions ‘counters’, because they are like discs being moved around on a chessboard: an image which is itself not unlike Orwell’s prefabricated hen-house in ‘Politics and the English Language’.

Of course, Orwell’s focus is English prose rather than poetry, and his objections to sloppy writing are not principally literary (although that is undoubtedly a factor) but, above all, political. And he is keen to emphasise that his criticism of bad language, and suggestions for how to improve political writing, are both, to an extent, hopelessly idealistic: as he observes towards the end of ‘Politics and the English Language’, ‘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.’

But what Orwell advises is that the writer be on their guard against such phrases, the better to avoid them where possible. This is why he encourages writers to be more self-questioning (‘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?’) when writing political prose.

Nevertheless, the link between the standard of language and the kind of politics a particular country, regime, or historical era has is an important one. As Orwell writes: ‘I should expect to find – this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify – that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.’

Those writing under a dictatorship cannot write or speak freely, of course, but more importantly, those defending totalitarian rule must bend and abuse language in order to make ugly truths sound more attractive to the general populace, and perhaps to other nations.

In more recent times, the phrase ‘collateral damage’ is one of the more objectionable phrases used about war, hiding the often ugly reality (innocent civilians who are unfortunate victims of violence, but who are somehow viewed as a justifiable price to pay for the greater good).

Although Orwell’s essay has been criticised for being too idealistic, in many ways ‘Politics and the English Language’ remains as relevant now as it was in 1946 when it was first published.

Indeed, to return to Orwell’s opening point about decadence, it is unavoidable that the standard of political discourse has further declined since Orwell’s day. Perhaps it’s time a few more influential writers started heeding his argument?

9 thoughts on “A Summary and Analysis of George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’”

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YES! Thank you!

A great and useful post. As a writer, I have been seriously offended by the politicization of the language in the past 50 years. Much of this is supposedly to sanitize, de-genderize, or diversity-fie language – exactly as it’s done in Orwell’s “1984.” How did a wonderfully useful word like gay – cheerful or lively – come to mean homosexual? And is optics not a branch of physics? Ironically, when the liberal but sensible JK Rowling criticized the replacement of “woman” with “person who menstruates” SHE was the one attacked. Now, God help us, we hope “crude” spaceships will get humans to Mars – which, if you research the poor quality control in Tesla cars, might in fact be a proper term.

And less anyone out there misread, this or me – I was a civil rights marcher, taught in a girls’ high school (where I got in minor trouble for suggesting to the students that they should aim higher than the traditional jobs of nurse or teacher), and – while somewhat of a mugwump – consider myself a liberal.

But I will fight to keep the language and the history from being 1984ed.

My desert island book would be the Everyman Essays of Orwell which is around 1200 pages. I’ve read it all the way through twice without fatigue and read individual essays endlessly. His warmth and affability help, Even better than Montaigne in this heretic’s view.

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I’ll go against the flow here and say Orwell was – at least in part – quite wrong here. If I recall correctly, he was wrong about a few things including, I think, the right way to make a cup of tea! In all seriousness, what he fails to acknowledge in this essay is that language is a living thing and belongs to the people, not the theorists, at all time. If a metaphor changes because of homophone mix up or whatever, then so be it. Many of our expressions we have little idea of now – I think of ‘baited breath’ which almost no one, even those who know how it should be spelt, realise should be ‘abated breath’.

Worse than this though, his ‘rules’ have indeed been taken up by many would-be writers to horrifying effect. I recall learning to make up new metaphors and similes rather than use clichés when I first began training ten years ago or more. I saw some ghastly new metaphors over time which swiftly made me realise that there’s a reason we use the same expressions a great deal and that is they are familiar and do the job well. To look at how to use them badly, just try reading Gregory David Roberts ‘Shantaram’. Similarly, the use of active voice has led to unpalatable writing which lacks character. The passive voice may well become longwinded when badly used, but it brings character when used well.

That said, Orwell is rarely completely wrong. Some of his points – essentially, use words you actually understand and don’t be pretentious – are valid. But the idea of the degradation of politics is really quite a bit of nonsense!

Always good to get some critique of Orwell, Ken! And I do wonder how tongue-in-cheek he was when proposing his guidelines – after all, even he admits he’s probably broken several of his own rules in the course of his essay! I think I’m more in the T. E. Hulme camp than the Orwell – poetry can afford to bend language in new ways (indeed, it often should do just this), and create daring new metaphors and ways of viewing the world. But prose, especially political non-fiction, is there to communicate an argument or position, and I agree that ghastly new metaphors would just get in the way. One of the things that is refreshing reading Orwell is how many of the problems he identified are still being discussed today, often as if they are new problems that didn’t exist a few decades ago. Orwell shows that at least one person was already discussing them over half a century ago!

Absolutely true! When you have someone of Orwell’s intelligence and clear thinking, even when you believe him wrong or misguided, he is still relevant and remains so decades later.

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Writers on Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

If you’ve ever thought of yourself as a writer, chances are that you have opinions about George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” First published in 1946, it has since become required reading for intro-level writing classes, as well as an obligatory citation when discussing politics and rhetoric. From glowing exaltations to severe critiques, I was curious what working writers had to say about the famed essay. I mined NYPL’s Articles & Databases to find out.

If you’re unfamiliar with “Politics and the English Language,” the Library has you covered! You can read it in NYPL’s Articles & Databases or in the Orwell collection All Art Is Propaganda compiled by George Packer.

Portrait photo of George Orwell

George Orwell via Wikimedia Commons

From “Left Field” Ed Smith | New Statesman | 2013 We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. […] Using plain and clear language is not a moral virtue, as Orwell hoped. Things aren’t that simple. In fact, giving the impression of clarity and straightforwardness is often a strategic game. The way we speak and the way we write are both forms of dress. We can, linguistically, dress ourselves up any way we like. We can affect plainness and directness just as much as we can affect sophistication and complexity. We can try to mislead or to impress, in either mode. Or we can use either register honestly.

From “Review: Author, Author” Steven Poole | The Guardian | 2013 Orwell’s assault on political euphemism, then, is righteous but limited. His more general attacks in “Politics” on what he perceives to be bad style are often outright ridiculous, parading a comically arbitrary collection of intolerances. […]If you ever feel tempted to say “status quo” or “cul de sac,” for instance, Orwell will sneer at you for “pretentious diction.” Why pretentious? Because these phrases are of “foreign” origin. […] Yet if we strip the language down to what there is a “real need” for, whither poetry? Allow only the words that Orwell thinks necessary, and the resulting stunted lexicon is itself a kind of functionalist, impoverished Newspeak.

From “Why We Need to Call a Pig a Pig (With or Without Lipstick)” Jennie Yabroff | Newsweek | 2008 [Orwell] was less interested in what motivates people to act without integrity than in the words they use to camouflage and perpetuate their dishonesty: for Orwell, bad language and bad politics were one and the same. Yet for all his penury and despair, his faith in the power of clear, strong language can only be read as optimistic. Today, the writer’s name is invoked to describe anything involving surveillance, paranoia, or even books about animals. Orwell’s ideas have been bastardized and simplified over time […] Rather than describing surveillance devices, or pig farms, a more accurate application of the adjective would mean something that aspires to the lucidity and integrity of Orwell’s writing. In that case, it would be the highest praise.

From “Musing About Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’—50 Years Later” Sanford Pinsker | Virginia Quarterly Review | 1997 [T]hose who should know better, and more important, whose responsibility it is to pass along a healthy respect for language are often the same people who take a special delight in giving “Politics and the English Language” the scholarly raspberries. That Orwell has a hard time passing muster among the composition theory crowd is now a matter of record, but I had a preview of the hammering-to-come during the late 1970’s, when my college’s director of freshman writing treated the English department to an impromptu stump speech about just how pernicious, and badly written, Orwell’s essays were. I can’t remember the bill of particulars—probably because my shock and her certainty were on a collision course—but I do recall pointing out that if people couldn’t recognize the intrinsic greatness of an essay like “Politics and the English Language,” they wouldn’t know a first-rate piece of writing if it bit them on the ass.

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orwell essay politics and english language

Hear that low hum? George Orwell is spinning in his grave. Orwell's warnings in his 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language" went unheeded; jargon is everywhere. People celebrate their peers who "think outside the box" and "color outside the lines," but what are they celebrating? What does political speak do that can't be accomplished with plain language? This election year, keep an eye on the maverick who turns their nose up at dark money – they're totally astroturfing that battleground state.

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George Orwell and "Politics and the English Language"

George Orwell was passionate about the subject of politics. He traveled to Spain when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 to fight fascism. When found medically unfit to serve during World War II, he contributed to the cause by writing guides used to train troops, and wrote broadcasts for the BBC to undermine Nazi propaganda.

Most of his famous writing is political or includes social criticism. In his 1946 essay "Why I Write" Orwell states, "Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written . . . against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism." 1

George Orwell regularly immersed himself in England's impoverished neighborhoods to get a first-hand account of poverty for his writing. He was sympathetic to their plight and felt socialism would end income inequality. In Orwell's 1940 essay, "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius", he writes, "It is a fact that any rich man . . . has less to fear from Fascism than either Communism or democratic Socialism." 2

Orwell published "Politics and the English Language" in 1946. World War II had ended the year before, and Europe was in tatters. One of Orwell's arguments in "Politics and the English Language" is that language and thought reflect each other. In other words, language is how people share their thoughts, but to some extent, those thoughts depend on what words are available to them.

In "Politics and the English Language" Orwell sets out to help rebuild European society by alerting them to "bad habits" in writing they should avoid so they "can think more clearly . . . [which is a] necessary first step toward political regeneration" (1946).

"Politics and the English Language" Summary

Orwell begins "Politics and the English Language" by arguing that the English language is suffering due to a poor economic and political climate. He denies advocating due to "good old days" nostalgia and asserts that the problem can be fixed if people put forth the effort. Orwell shares writing excerpts that embody the characteristics he finds most disturbing: "staleness of imagery" and "lack of precision" (1946).

Orwell uses "Politics and the English Language" to list writing trends that people should stop doing:

  • Using cliché metaphors.
  • Using fluff words that increase word count without adding clarity.
  • Using large words to sound more authoritative.
  • Using abstract words that look like they're saying something profound but have no meaning. Orwell places political language in this slot, saying, "the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different" (1946).

Have you come across any of these recently? If so, what was your reaction?

Orwell charges that modern English is moving away from using specific language and imagery in writing and toward vague sentences that sound pleasing to the ear rhythmically but don't actually mean anything. To combat this, he says writers should ask themselves:

  • How should I say what I'm trying to say?
  • Is there an image I can use to help what I'm saying make sense?
  • Is the image crisp enough to make the reader think about what I'm saying?
  • Can I use fewer words to get my meaning across or say it in a better way?

Orwell follows these questions by honing in on political writing specifically. In "Politics and the English Language" Orwell says overly familiar phrases filter meaning and leave even the speaker unsure of what they're saying, which is where "the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear" (1946).

Couching morally questionable decisions in euphemisms allows the people who make such decisions to separate themselves from their choices. Politicians and their representatives use catchphrases to encourage the public to go along with what they're saying.

Politics and the English Language, Choice Signs, StudySmarter

Before Orwell offers a set of rules that he feels would offer a shift toward fixing the English language, he clarifies that he is not saying there should be a set form of English and grammar. "Politics and the English Language" argues the most important thing is for "meaning [to] choose the word, and not the other way about" (1946).

He states that words choose meaning when the writer thinks in abstracts rather than having a clear picture of what they're trying to say. Orwell believes using the following rules will create a clear and concise writing style:

  • Don't use the same figures of speech everyone else does.
  • Choose simple language.
  • Eliminate extra words in sentences.
  • Use an active voice whenever possible.
  • Choose words most people understand when technical language isn't necessary.
  • These rules are made to be broken if they would cause the writer to sound like an idiot.

Look at what is happening between the subject and the verb to decide whether something is written in the active or passive voice. The subject (noun) of an active voice sentence acts out the verb. In a passive voice sentence, the subject experiences the verb's action.

Active voice: She sang a song in the shower.

Passive voice: A song was sung by her in the shower.

"Politics and the English Language" Analysis

Orwell's arguments in "Politics and the English Language" are mostly logical appeals. He offers examples of what he considers lousy writing and dissects what is wrong with them using agreed-upon rules of language. Orwell makes a valid point that writers who mix their metaphors or switch the original term in a metaphor for a word that sounds similar haven't "stopped to think" (1946). It's hard to believe anyone who would write "never lick a gift horse in the mouth" knows what they're saying, even if it is probably still good advice.

Orwell's discussion concerning political writing remains relevant. Euphemisms take the hard edge off unpleasant conversations, and politics tend to be full of unpleasant discussions. However, that is precisely why it's dangerous to allow decisions to be made by politicians who speak in language that enables them to reframe their actions into phrases that disconnect them from the reality of their choices.

For example, President George W. Bush's speech about "weapons of mass destruction" owned by Saddam Hussein led many people to support a war against Iraq that was based on lies. Bush's soundbite-worthy description of the weapons Hussein and his allies supposedly owned inspired fear.

Consequently, American soldiers and Iraqi citizens suffered and died. Emotional appeal creeps into Orwell's writing when he describes the machine-like statesman whose glasses reflect the stage lights and "turn [their eyes] into blank discs" (1946).

An example of the writing Orwell rallied against would be a bloated rephrasing of the sentence: "Politicians speak in euphemisms that enable them to reframe their actions into phrases that disconnect them from the reality of their choices." It would look something like: "Politicians speak in euphemisms that bounce off each other like images in funhouse mirrors until they are completely removed in their minds from the bombs they authorize."

Orwell's essay is written mainly in the style he advocates for, lending it credibility. The work has a balanced mix of sentence lengths that flow together to engage the reader's attention. Complex thoughts are expressed using straightforward language and striking images. Orwell states that overused phrases block a writer's meaning "like tea-leaves blocking a sink" and compares their convenience to "a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow" (1946).

"Politics and the English Language" Tone

"Politics and the English Language" is written in an authoritative and often sarcastic tone. It succeeds at relating to the Everyman, especially when it pokes fun at the circular writing occasionally encountered in art or literary criticism. As an example of this, Orwell offers two contradicting art critics' opinions on the subject of an artist's work as having a "living quality" and a "peculiar deadness," arguing that if they used concrete words like "black and white . . . [the reader] would see at once that language was being used in an improper way" (1946).

The Everyman is a trope, or figurative device, a generic representation of the average person. The Everyman likes and dislikes what most people like and dislike and reacts as a "normal" person would in any given situation.

Writing classes often include Orwell's essay because it offers a strong foundation for building writing skills and teaches students to think critically about political language. In 'Politics and the English Language' Orwell explains that it's essential to ask oneself questions such as why the United States named the program it uses to spy on its citizens "The Patriot Act," because "[all] issues are political issues" and "language can . . . corrupt thought" (1946). Most people want to be seen as patriots, so using that word in the program's name has a subliminal effect of making people want to comply.

Politics and the English Language, Security Cameras, StudySmarter

However, the authoritative tone has not always aged well. As other types of voices have been allowed into the discussion of good writing, it raises the question of who gave Orwell his authority? In an article about Orwell, Louis Menand rightfully ridicules Orwell's Eurocentric opinion that fascism exists partly because people have strayed from Anglo-Saxon diction . 3 Nevertheless, amid Orwell's outdated thinking lies knowledgeable advice to both writers and critical thinkers. Rather than completely dismissing Orwell for his prejudicial views, students could learn to adapt his rules to their cultural voices.

Diction is spoken or written language.

"Politics and the English Language" Quotes

"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible." (Orwell, 1946)

"[A]n effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form." (Orwell, 1946)

Orwell discusses how language and thought rely on each other. He believed that if people were interested in changing the way they wrote, it could change the path of language and, by extension, politics.

"The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness." (Orwell, 1946)

Orwell sensed that an overreliance on vague statements spoken with authority would lead to the loss of meaning. When a person is unsure of the meaning of the words they're using, they cannot fully comprehend their reality.

Orwell wrote "Politics and the English Language" while he was thinking about writing his famous novel, 1984 (1949). "Newspeak" in 1984 is language used by the government. It reflects the theme in "Politics and the English Language" that political speech is used to conceal meaning and dissuade thought.

Politics and the English Language - Key takeaways

  • "Politics and the English Language" is an essay written by George Orwell published in 1946.
  • Orwell discusses the idea that the English language is being muddied by clichés and euphemisms, contributing to a poor political climate.
  • "Politics and the English Language" offers a list of rules that cuts out vague language and avoids political dishonesty.
  • "Politics and the English Language" relates to the Everyman and has been a popular essay assigned in writing classes.
  • The Eurocentric views expressed by Orwell can be problematic when placed in a broader cultural context.

Frequently Asked Questions about Politics and the English Language

--> when was "politics and the english language" written.

"Politics and the English Language" was written in 1946.

--> What is Orwell's argument in 'Politics and the English Language'?

In "Politics and the English Language" Orwell argues that the English language is becoming muddied by clichés and euphemisms which is contributing to a poor political climate.

--> What is Orwell's purpose in writing "Politics and the English Language"?

Orwell's purpose in writing "Politics and the English Language" is to spread awareness of problematic trends in modern writing and to offer what he sees as possible solutions.

--> What is the message of "Politics and the English Language"?

The message in "Politics and the English Language" is that language and thought are connected. By cutting vague statements and clichés out of writing, people would be able to think more clearly. When people can think more clearly, they can avoid political dishonesty.

--> What connection does Orwell make between politics and the English language?

Orwell makes the connection between politics and the English language that vague language conceals meaning. This is important to politics because it is difficult to justify many political actions using clear language.

Final Politics and the English Language Quiz

Politics and the english language quiz - teste dein wissen.

What are the two characteristics of bad writing that Orwell sees in each of the five excerpts he provides?

Show answer

The two characteristics of bad writing that all five excerpts share are:

  • staleness of imagery
  • lack of precision

Show question

True or False: Orwell believes political writing is guilty of using abstract language to hide its meaning.

What are the bad writing trends that Orwell wants writers to move away from?

All of the above

What is the most important thing that will happen if Orwell's writing rules are followed?

The thing Orwell most wants to see happen by following his writing rules is that writers will choose words to express what they want to say rather than have meaning dictated by the words that are in the writing.

What are the questions Orwell believes a writer should ask themselves before writing?

All of the Above

What is the special connection between politics and the "debasement of language"?

The special connection between politics and the "debasement of language" is that using overly familiar phrases filter meaning until even the speaker is not sure of what they're saying. This allows the speaker to separate themselves from their choices.

True or False: Orwell believes there should be a set form of English and grammar rules to follow.

False: Orwell states that it's not necessary to have an unbending loyalty to standardized English or grammar rules.

How are language and thought connected?

Language and thought are connected because people use language to express their thoughts, but they are able to think in terms of the language that's available to them.

What are the rules Orwell believes will lead to clear and concise writing?

Why do writing classes often assign 'Politics and the English Language'?

Writing classes often assign 'Politics and the English Language' because it offers a strong foundation for writing skills and teaches students to think critically about political writing.

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Politics and the English Language, 2023

The continued relevance of George Orwell’s landmark 1946 essay.

George Case

George Orwell’s “ Politics and the English Language ” is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential essays ever written. First published in Britain’s Horizon in 1946, it has since been widely anthologized and is always included in any collection of the writer’s essential nonfiction. In the decades since its appearance, the article has been quoted by many commentators who invoke Orwell’s literary and moral stature in support of its continued relevance. But perhaps the language of today’s politics warrants some fresh criticisms that even the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm could not have conceived.

“Politics and the English Language” addressed the jargon, double-talk, and what we would now call “spin” that had already distorted the discourse of the mid-20th century. “In our time,” Orwell argued, “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. ... 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.” Those are the sentences most cited whenever a modern leader or talking head hides behind terms like “restructuring” (for layoffs), “visiting a site” (for bombing), or “alternative facts” (for falsehoods). In his essay, Orwell also cut through the careless, mechanical prose of academics and journalists who fall back on clichés—“all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.”

These objections still hold up almost 80 years later, but historic changes in taste and technology mean that they apply to a new set of unexamined truisms and slogans regularly invoked less in oratory or print than through televised soundbites, online memes, and social media: the errors of reason and rhetoric identified in “Politics and the English Language” can be seen in familiar examples of empty platitudes, stretched metaphors, and meaningless cant which few who post, share, like, and retweet have seriously parsed. Consider how the following lexicon from 2023 is distinguished by the same question-begging, humbug, and sheer cloudy vagueness exposed by George Orwell in 1946.

Systemic racism

Frequently said to be a pressing social issue but seldom defined with any clarity, this common epithet misuses the adjective “systemic” as a synonym for “persistent,” “diffuse,” or “subjectively felt.” True models of systemic racism could include the legal codes of apartheid South Africa, of the segregationist US South before the 1960s, and of Nazi Germany under its Nuremberg Laws from 1935. In each instance, racial or religious discrimination was explicitly prescribed through a complex of written rules and enforced by judges, police, bureaucrats, and other agents of the government. By those standards, no Western democracy can be called systemically racist now; indeed, it’s happily far easier to find systemic anti -racism in the form of federal holidays, commemorations by civic bodies, images on stamps and currency, public commissions and inquiries, academic curricula, hiring policies, official diversity agendas, and in the very texts of constitutional documents. The value of the systemic racism charge lies in how it both extends and depersonalizes guilt in societies where few individuals—and certainly no public authorities—remain avowedly guilty of racism. Call one person a racist and you’ve got an angry lawsuit, but call an entire system racist and you’ve got a campaign plank, a bestselling book, or at the very least a convenient excuse.

Rape culture

Here the same principle of generalization allows activists to accuse whole communities (e.g., a university campus or a sports league) of sanctioning and promoting sexual assault, in the absence of criminal allegations of sexual assault committed by particular people. Like systemic racism, rape culture is a political concept that’s difficult to reject without sounding unlikable or even immoral, rather than a specific indictment that might be leveled or challenged in specific situations—which is probably the point. Both ideas seem to be holdovers from civil rights or feminist movements of generations ago, when unapologetic bigots and lechers were obvious adversaries. Lacking modern equivalents of George Wallace or Larry Flynt, force of habit now ascribes their offenses to everybody and nobody at once, such that a permanent oppressor-victim complaint can be maintained even as the number of certifiable oppressors and victims dwindles.

Stolen land

This expression routinely appears in reference to the settling of Canada, the United States, Australia, and other territory by Europeans after Columbus. Since 1492, the established populations of vast geographies were displaced and devastated by newcomers (see, for example, Ronald Wright’s 1992 book Stolen Continents , along with innumerable posters, t-shirts, and other paraphernalia). This centuries-long process is now reduced to a simple parable of theft. But the stolen land trope borrows the language of criminality to emphasize Native resentment and non-Native culpability in a way that other portrayals don’t: usurped doesn’t have the same bite; the fashionable unceded is more of an empty gesture than a preface to tangible reparation; conquered is hard to dispute historically but rather indelicate in polite company. No one expects the supposedly stolen land to be returned the way it was found, like a stolen car or wallet, just as no one is still bitter that the Romans stole Britain or the Muslims stole Egypt. Assertions of stolen land also promote myths about Aboriginals residing on the same real estate “since time immemorial,” contrary to archaeological and anthropological studies of human migration—violent, gradual, or somewhere in between—across the last 20,000 years.

Cultural genocide

Despite drawing on the same imagery, an emotional injury is not like a broken leg. Spiritual malaise is not like an infectious sickness. Verbal castration is not like castration. Genocide is another noun that means something quite different when it is modified, yet the cultural version has become a staple of political dialogue in Canada (describing the Native experience since colonialism) and elsewhere. As with systemic racism or rape culture, cultural genocide seems to be a linguistic device more than an objective phenomenon: by uttering a powerful word but hedging it with a thin qualification, protesters can subtly compare themselves to Jews under Hitler or Cambodians under Pol Pot, winning public support and governmental redress for undergoing mistreatment significantly milder than what the word stands for alone. There’s no doubt that, in the Canadian context at any rate, Indigenous children were once taught to forsake the traditions of their ancestors and assimilate through English and Christianity. But how might this be considered a program of extermination comparable to the Holocaust or the Killing Fields? We could also say that women’s liberation was a cultural genocide of male chauvinists, or that punk rock was a cultural genocide of hippies. Because we shudder at any mention of genocide, that little caveat “cultural” piggybacks on the horror of the original term while serving as a neat proviso that, oh, by the way, we don’t mean mass murder.


These have become standard characterizations of unwelcome, dissenting, or controversial positions which supposedly reflect the psychological afflictions of the people who hold them. Hate is visceral hostility; -phobia is a suffix denoting irrational fear; denial is a deep-seated refusal to accept one’s personal reality. Thus an opponent of immigration may be a member of a hate group—although, just as likely, he’s concerned with the socio-economic effects of rapid demographic change. A parent opposed to drag performances at her kids’ school may be transphobic—although, just as likely, she’s uncomfortable with sexualized displays aimed at children. A worker unwilling to be vaccinated against COVID-19 may deny science—although, just as likely, he bristles at the regulation of health standards and the access of personal medical data by employers. Increasingly, however, attitudes once thought to be ordinarily political—perhaps biased, perhaps shortsighted, but more or less constructive—are now described as forms of mental imbalance. Were they alive today, Darwin would be dismissed as a creation denialist and Martin Luther as Catholophobic. You’d have to sit down and debate with somebody whose views differ from yours, but there’s no need to engage with a hater, a homophobe, or a denier.

Misinformation and disinformation

A parallel pair of designations given to anything believed or said by those with whom one disagrees; they are descended from the older propaganda . Of course deliberately fake websites and “news” really are disseminated by a variety of actors internationally, and politicians and governments have always told lies to be accepted and shared by their publics. But the labels “misinformation” and “disinformation” are now attached first, and proof that the labeled material is intentionally deceitful is found later, if at all. In fact, most of the reportage, editorials, and conjecture that’s out there is neither unimpeachably correct nor totally spurious. There is a large difference between known untruths which may do real harm (misleading claims for a commercial product, say), and embellishments that twist agreed-on knowledge in order to persuade (such as a political platform). Misinformation and disinformation are like traffic accidents, phone addiction, and dryer lint: inevitable byproducts of widespread technologies whose conveniences we otherwise take for granted. You can always commute by bus, put down your device, and hang your wet clothes on a line—and you can always disconnect from the unending torrent of true and false messages in which we are all drowning—but not many of us are willing to make those trade-offs.

Climate emergency

A burning building is an emergency. A sinking ship is an emergency. A rampaging gunman is an emergency. Evolving conditions in a planet’s atmosphere will impact the life on its surface, but the pace and the scale of the evolution do not merit categorization as an urgent, call-911 crisis. Evidence tells us that human activity has affected long-term trends of temperature and precipitation worldwide; day-to-day weather, though, still follows roughly seasonal patterns that even with occasional storms and heat waves are hardly sudden shocks. Sixty years ago, environmentalists began alerting the public to immediate blights of pollution or deforestation and spent little effort projecting possible consequences in the future. Recycling programs, banned chemicals, and mandated energy efficiency promised, and delivered, immediate benefits. In our era, by contrast, environmentalism is a millenarian cause devoted to anticipation of an imminent event (the 2021 film Don’t Look Up used the prospect of a meteor strike as an analogy), more than the realization of practical reforms. The “Emergency” stamp hypes a legitimate problem that most people can comprehend into an apocalyptic article of faith.

Climate, information, popular knowledge, genocide, land claims, sexual assault, and racism are all serious topics, but politicizing them with hyperbole turns them into trite catchphrases. The language cited here is largely employed as a stylistic template by the outlets who relay it—in the same way that individual publications will adhere to uniform guidelines of punctuation and capitalization, so too must they now follow directives to always write rape culture , stolen land , misinformation , or climate emergency in place of anything more neutral or accurate. Sometimes, as with cultural genocide or systemic racism , the purpose appears to be in how the diction of a few extra syllables imparts gravity to the premise being conveyed, as if a gigantic whale is a bigger animal than a whale , or a horrific murder is a worse crime than a murder .

Elsewhere, the words strive to alter the parameters of an issue so that its actual or perceived significance is amplified a little longer. “Drunk driving” will always be a danger if the legal limits of motorists’ alcohol levels are periodically lowered; likewise, relations between the sexes and a chaotic range of public opinion will always be problematic if they can be recast as rape culture , hate , or disinformation . This lingo typifies the parroted lines and reflexive responses of political communication in the 21st century.

In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell’s concluding lesson was not just that parroted lines and reflexive responses were aesthetically bad, or that they revealed professional incompetence in whoever crafted them, but that they served to suppress thinking. “The invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases … can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain,” he wrote. He is still right: glib, shallow expression reflects, and will only perpetuate, glib, shallow thought, achieving no more than to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

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