On the essays shelf:
A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell
One of the most essential pieces of writing about writing in existence. I would give this to any young writer, or writer hopeful, to say, “Read this and learn.” It’s difficult to write about the topic of bad writing without sounding like a bitch, but Orwell didn’t worry about that so I will try not to, either. In 1984, Orwell made his thoughts about language clear, and carried them to their furthest extreme. “Newspeak” in 1984 limited the number of words one could use for any particular thing, or idea/concept. Orwell’s criticism (in 1984 and here in “Politics and the English Language”) is that if you limit the words available (either by political fiat, or through your own incompetence with language), then you limit thought. It doesn’t go the other way around. When someone has a limited vocabulary, they have limited thinking power as well. Bad writers often are bad thinkers. You can see this on some of the political blogs, certainly, where the writer has a lot of feelings and opinions, but must rely on strung-together worn-out cliches, because 1. they do not have the writing skill to put their thoughts into words in any way that is fresh or their own or 2. there really isn’t a lot of thinking going on in the first place. With some of the more partisan blogs, you know what they will say before they say it. You even know the WORDS they will choose. Orwell suggests that this is not just a matter of poor writing, but poor thought, lack of any thinking whatsoever. Political writing is obviously the best example, because most of it is either preaching to the choir already in agreement with the sentiments expressed, or a battering ram against an easily-demonized opponent. But examples abound elsewhere, and it’s gotten worse since Orwell’s day, with post-modern lit-crit style suffocating academic writing (and writing about the arts, in general).
As I was getting ready to write this post, I remembered a long-ago (as in 2005 long-ago) group-project on my site that seemed relevant to Orwell’s thoughts about the deterioration of language. In 2005, the artist Christo put up all of these orange fabric “gates” through Central Park. If you aren’t in New York, you can see what The Gates were all about here. I thought they were a lot of fun, and loved walking around under them, because the landscape (already beautiful) was totally transformed into something magical, whimsical. I loved it. But it seemed to cause a lot of random anger in people, and that was baffling to me. Not everyone will like everything, but why are you PISSED about The Gates? Why are you AFFRONTED by The Gates? I wrote about it on my site a bit, and that was back in the day when more people actually, you know, commented on blogs, as opposed to hanging out on their own Facebook pages all day (no judgment, things change). So we started talking about The Gates, in the comments section, and it started to become a group joke: how to describe The Gates in the most suffocatingly obscure and pretentious “art critic” language we could. Everyone contributed. People were contributing whole sentences, and some people just contributed words that should be included.
I decided to put all of the contributions together, written by about 30 different people, into one piece: a review of The Gates. Here is the end result, which I still find uproariously funny (and very accurate). It’s a parody of the total degradation of language we are all now accustomed to. I suppose it’s good to laugh at it!
Orwell, in his essay, uses five examples of current-day writing and annihilates the horrible writing, point by point. One is a political piece from a Socialist newspaper, one is a literary review, one is a letter to the editor, etc. Orwell knows that the deterioration of language is merely a reflection of the deterioration of actual thought.
It’s pretty scary. But if you’ve read 1984, you know how right-on he is and was, in so many respects.
Here’s just one excerpt of this magnificent essay.
A Collection of Essays, ‘Politics and the English Language’, by George Orwell
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate 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. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
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. 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.”
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.
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. 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. By this morning’s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he “felt impelled” to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: “[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany’s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe.” You see, he “feels impelled” to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.