‘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?