Politics and the English Language
Politics and the English Language
George Orwell, 1946
The decline of a language has political and economic causes. A man may drink because he feels to be a failure, then fail more because he drinks. The same thing happens to the English language. It becomes inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish. Modern English is full of bad habits spread by imitation, which can be avoided if willing to take the trouble. Here are two specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.
1. I am not 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, Interglossa
Each passage has faults of its own, but two qualities are common. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else. I list below several of the tricks where the work of prose construction is dodged:
Dying metaphors. A metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image. There is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors, which have lost all power and are used because they save people inventing phrases for themselves.
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 syllables.
Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing it is normal to come across long passages, which are completely lacking meaning.
Modern writing does not consist in picking out words for their meaning. It consists in gumming together strips of words, which have been set in order by someone else. The attraction of this is that it is easy. By using metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save mental effort, but leave your meaning vague. 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?
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.
In our time it is true that political writing is bad writing. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes vary from party to party, but they are alike in that one never finds in them a fresh, vivid turn of speech. One often feels that one is not watching a live human being but a dummy. The 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.
In our time, political speech and writing are the defence of the indefensible. The continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations can be defended, but only by arguments, which are too brutal for most people. Political language consists largely of euphemism, question-begging and vagueness. Villages are bombarded, inhabitants driven out into the countryside: this is called pacification. Peasants robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads: this is called transfer of population. Phraseology is needed to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
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.
The decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue that language reflects social conditions, and we cannot influence its development by tinkering with words. This may be true, but it is not true in detail. Words and expressions have disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority.
It is concerned with the scrapping of words or idioms, which have outworn its usefulness. It implies using the fewest and shortest words. Above all is to let the meaning choose the word, not the other way around. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, which you see in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word, cut it out.
- Never use passive where you can use active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.