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Politics and the English Language

From Academic Kids

"Politics and the English Language" (1946) is one of George Orwell's most famous essays. He examines political writing (and writing in general) in English, diagnoses its serious faults, and suggests remedies. In particular, Orwell believes that writers should:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which is quite often seen in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. Always cut a word out if it is possible to do so.
  4. Never use the passive voice where the active voice will do.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon if an everyday English equivalent will suffice.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Then, by actually breaking all of these rules in the essay itself, Orwell attempts to jostle the reader out of mental sluggishness. For instance, the admonition against wordiness, "Always cut out a word if it is possible to do so," is itself wordy, and can be expressed more succinctly as "Cut out unnecessary words." In his admonition against common and overused figures of speech, Orwell uses the common and overused figure of speech "figure of speech." In his admonition against foreign terms and in favor of everyday English, Orwell breaks his own rule by using the French term "jargon." Orwell's essay is replete with ironic rhetorical subtexts such as these.

In one of the most famous sections of the essay, Orwell quotes from the King James Bible, Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, verse 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.

He translates this verse into "modern" English like this:

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.

Elsewhere in the essay, Orwell examined 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 rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

Orwell comments that:

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. 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.

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