Politics and the English Language

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"Politics and the English Language" (1946) is an essay by George Orwell criticizing "ugly and inaccurate" contemporary written English.

Orwell said that political prose was formed "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.[1]


[edit] Summary

Orwell criticises bad writing habits which spread by imitation. He argues that it is necessary for writers to get rid of these habits and think more clearly about what they say, because thinking clearly is a necessary step toward political regeneration.

Orwell choses five specimen pieces of text, by Harold Laski ("five negatives in 53 words"), Lancelot Hogben (mixed metaphors) , an essay on psychology in Politics (magazine) ("simply meaningless"), a communist pamphlet ("an accumulation of stale phrases") and a reader's letter in Tribune (magazine) ("words and meaning have parted company"). From these he 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", 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, where orthodoxy leads to a lifeless imitative style. Political speech and writing are generally in defence 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 been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing 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."

[edit] Extracts and analysis

[edit] Causes and characteristics of unclear writing

He related what he believed to be a close association between bad prose and inhumane ideology:

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 regime 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 itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

Orwell said that this decline was self-perpetuating. Vague language was spreading by imitation, reinforcing the effect of its original political and economic causes. This obscured mental laziness, which in turn made it easier to get away with not bothering to think properly.

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.

[edit] "Translation" of Ecclesiastes

To give an example of what he is describing, Orwell "translates" 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 considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The 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.[2] Walter John Christie, who followed Orwell to Eton wrote that she preached the virtues of "simplicity, honesty, and avoidance of verbiage"[3] and pointed out that the qualities Flip most prized were later to be seen in Orwell’s writing.[4]

[edit] Six rules

Orwell said it was easy for his contemporaries to slip into bad writing of the sort he describes, and says the temptation to use meaningless or hackneyed phrases was like a "packet of aspirins always at one's elbow." In particular, they are always ready to form the writer's thoughts for him to save him the bother of thinking, or writing, clearly. However, he concludes the progress of bad writing is reversible and offers the reader six rules he says will help them avoid most of the errors in the examples of poor writing he gave earlier in the article:[5]

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

John Rodden claims, given much of Orwell's work was polemical, he sometimes violated these rules and Orwell himself concedes he has no doubt violated some of them in the very essay in which they were included.[6]

[edit] Critical reception

In his biography of Orwell, Michael Shelden calls it "his most influential essay."[7] Terry Eagleton praised its demystification of political language, although he later became disenchanted with Orwell.[8] Linguist Geoffrey Pullum criticized the essay for "its insane and unfollowable insistence that good writing must avoid all phrases and word uses that are familiar."[9]

[edit] History

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 Jura where he wanted to start work on 'Nineteen Eighty-Four. [10]

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.

"Politics and the English Language" was originally published in the April 1946 issue of the journal Horizon.[10]

Introductory writing courses frequently cite this essay."[11]

[edit] 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.[12]

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.[10] 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."[7] 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".[7]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Shelden 1991, p. 393
  2. ^ Shelden 1991, p. 56
  3. ^ W J H Christie St. Cyprian’s Days, Blackwood's Magazine May 1971
  4. ^ Robert Pearce Truth and Falsehood: Orwell’s Prep School Woes The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol 43, No 171 (August 1992)
  5. ^ Hammond 1982, p. 218
  6. ^ Rodden 1989, p. 40
  7. ^ a b c Shelden 1991, p. 394
  8. ^ Quoted in Rodden 1989, p. 379
  9. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey (August 31, 2008). "A load of old Orwellian cobblers from Fisk". Language Log. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=551. Retrieved on December 28, 2008. 
  10. ^ a b c Taylor 2003, p. 376
  11. ^ Rodden 1989, p. 296
  12. ^ Hammond 1982, p. 218-219

[edit] Bibliography

  • Hammond, J.R. (1982). A George Orwell Companion. New York: St. Martin's Press. 
  • Rodden, John (1989). The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of "St. George" Orwell. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195039548. 
  • Shelden, Michael (1991). Orwell: The Authorized Biography. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 393. 
  • Taylor, D.J. (2003). Orwell: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 

[edit] Further reading

  • Chase, Stuart (1938). The Tyranny of Words. 
  • Chomsky, Noam (2004). Language and Politics. 
  • Kress, Gunther; Robert Hodge (1979). Language as Ideology. 

[edit] External links

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