Saturday, May 24, 2008

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language

Turns out my quotes are unreadable in Google Reader, presumably because they rely on the style-sheet. That sucks. I should bother the reader people about that.

A few years ago, I listened to a pretty good PARC forum, The Paradox of Political Language by Geoffrey Nunberg, University of California, Berkeley. In it he mentions Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language". I can't even remember if it played a big part or a small part in the talk but I decided I should read it.

Searching on Google now finds me lots of copies of the essay but for some reason, at the time, I didn't do that (or maybe it recently went out of copyright, I don't know). So off I went and bought "Orwell and Politics", a collection of his writings on politics.

It's got lots of interesting stuff in it and you pick up all manner of information about life in Britain before during and shortly after World War II. Stuff that you really wouldn't get in history class (if you took it!). There are lots references to odd political groups and the many Nazi-sympathizers that there were, seemingly quite a common thing before the war - those fascists were doing a fine job of keeping the wheels of industry and commerce turning and making sure the plebs didn't get above their station. There is also a lot of criticism of the blind support for Russia which was apparently quite common among intellectuals at the time.

It's got a copy of Animal Farm in it, including the original preface on "Freedom of the Press" which ironically did not make it to the press. In fact a repeated theme in the book is that while speech in Britain was quite free, with the major press owned by the rich, the political discourse of the time was completely distorted - a situation which has only really gotten worse with the further consolidation of the media and the increasing dependence on advertising for revenue.

Anyway, I have been slowly making my way through the book (I bought it in Dec 2006) and have now reached "Politics and the English Language". Of course I had read it already, back when I first bought the book but I decided I might as well read it again. Most of it feels completely unfamiliar to me. I recognised some stuff at the start but the rest is like I'm reading it for the first time. I don't know if I was distracted when I read before or if my memory really is that bad. Maybe it's just one of those things that you get more from each time, like The Naked Gun :). Anyway, the purpose of this post is to record what I thought were some great bits of that essay. They are as true today, as they were in Orwell's time, maybe moreso.


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 regime 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.

Add to this list "terrorism" which now means "what they do to us" but definitely not "what we do to them".


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 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.

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 phrases "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 considerations of contemporary phenomena" -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.

I think it was the octopus in the following paragraph that made me want to write this post.

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.

I have highlighted the most important sentence in the next paragraph.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense 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 the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless 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.

Orwell is blowing the whistle on the powerful hiding their crimes behind inoffensive euphemisms. 50 years on and such euphemisms are still being coined, accepted and regurgitated by the media. Instead of parroting them until they enter common parlance, an honest, responsible media would confront those who use them and make such phrases unutterable. Every time someone is allowed to say "extraordinary rendition" instead of "kidnap and torture" or "collateral damage" instead of "innocent civilian deaths", they have been let away with a deliberate lie. I wonder would war be less acceptable to voters and less comfortable for warmongers if they could not avoid "calling up mental pictures" of their crimes?


Has the gap between "real aims" and "declared aims" ever been as big as today? I like this image anyway.

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.

This is also as true today as ever.

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.

The Cure.

Orwell gives several pieces of advice on how to write well (I have cut and pasted paragraphs from various sections of his essay). The first one here really strikes a chord with me after all my recent letters-page activity.

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: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Orwell is not unwilling to criticise use of the "not un-" construction, a construction I myself am not unguilty of using from time to time.

One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.

His final list of rules.

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 us 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. 

The result

It is a little depressing to examine Orwell's list of "worn-out and useless" phrases that he would like to send to the dustbin.

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.

I have no idea how popular or novel they were at the time but sadly for Orwell, it would be hard to find an edition of a newspaper today that didn't feature one or more of "Achilles' heel", "hotbed", "melting pot" and "acid test". I think "jackboot" is only missing because there's nobody to use it against, which leaves "veritable inferno" as the only one to have been extinguished (pardon the pun). It's not that I myself dislike these phrases, I grew up with them and they seem perfectly natural to me but I presume they were relatively new in Orwell's time. They were badly- and over-used enough for Orwell to list them in the conclusion of his essay and almost all of them not only survived but flourished.

Finally, I must admit that I have not (and will not) go back over my previous postings and letters to the editor to see how well I measure up by Orwell's standards. I know I put considerable effort into shortening and to-the-pointening some of the letters to increase their chances of publication, although it didn't always work. Hopefully though, by writing this post, his wisdom won't just slide out of my head again like... an Achille's heel sliding out of a jackboot, into a veritable inferno.

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