The Books: A Collection of Essays, ‘Politics and the English Language’, by George Orwell

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.

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12 Responses to The Books: A Collection of Essays, ‘Politics and the English Language’, by George Orwell

  1. Sean O says:

    How spot on could George Orwell be in characterizing political speech? Orwell suggests that watching some politicians ramble on one gets “a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being,” or “some kind of dummy? He’s like St. Malachy describing the future run of popes [1 left now] or Nostradamus fleshing out historical actors well in advance. “Not a live human being” doesn’t that capture MITT the android devoid of any authentic human feeling and doesn’t “dummy” hit the mark on his party predecessor W?

    • sheila says:

      // He’s like St. Malachy describing the future run of popes [1 left now] or Nostradamus fleshing out historical actors well in advance. //

      haha I know, right?? He just had such prescience, such a good eye for what was REALLY going on. His piece is still relevant.

      In probably unpopular news, I never thought W was dumb. I thought he was shy and not good off the cuff (in some situations – in others, he was great off the cuff). YMMV. I know lots of folks hated the guy. That’s fine. I didn’t.

      And Mitt … his use of language was terrible, and a great example of what Orwell is talking about. Words changed their meanings, or were really LOADED with other meaning when he spoke. LIsten to his tone, when he said the word “entitled” in that clip of the private dinner. Listen to how vicious his tone is. The meaning of that actual word has been totally degraded by how it has been used in those circles. Like the word “values”. It’s come to the point where I flat out do not trust someone’s motives if they say the word “values”, which is a shame, because I love “values”, (the actual meaning), and have “values” myself, and it’s a damn good word.

      It’s the True Believers you really have to watch out for – and they always give themselves away by their language. They are really not ALLOWED to think certain things. It’s very black and white. So the lack of thought limits the language, and vice versa. It’s so depressing to read people who write like that and I avoid it as much as I possibly can. I can FEEL my brain atrophying trying to get through some of that stuff.

      Orwell uses part of a Communist pamphlet as an example of bad writing in this particular essay – and it’s that kind of writing I mean. You can see it on the real right-wing blogs, and the real leftie blogs, too: the same monotonous kind of language, the shorthand terminology for things (Newsspeak, essentially), and the assumption that “we don’t need to say this well: because the thinking is so clearly correct.”

      Bad, bad, bad.

      • sheila says:

        and worse than bad: dangerous.

        • Sean O says:

          Yes. The current political environment is so crazy. Real communication is not happening nor is it really meant to. The language has been hollowed out, corrupted, stripped of meaning or value. And yes the word values, as in family values has been thoroughly devalued as have so many other words.

          Chatter & miscommunication is going on at various levels. You have the true believers who shut down thinking and repeat mantras and codes to themselves. You have the cynical hucksters [with agendas they rarely share] willing to say whatever can get them elected. And then you have the rest of the population uniformed, dispirited, distracted or tuned out. Very little honest, truthful exchange is going on at the political or societal level.

          This is not the democracy the Founding Fathers envisioned. And it is dangerous because it is not sustainable.

      • Sean O says:

        YMMV? I’m a bit out of the texting/twitter loop.

        As for W, I really did dislike him. To me he was a cocky, silver spoon frat boy of the most average of talent. He simply wasn’t interested in much of the wider world. He was interested in his own advancement and partying which in and of themselves aren’t especially terrible or uncommon, but they are hardly the characteristics we need in a leader, let alone the leader of the free world. He was also a real hypocrite like so many in his administration, “tough guys” really chicken hawks who aggressively looked for and supported war for others while they assiduously avoided any kind of dangerous military service for themselves. Everyone is hypocritical to some extent, just human frailty. But the gap between words and deeds, public exhortations and personal conduct for W and so many of his advisers was enormous.

        Obviously he had some drive and got thru college. So he was not an idiot or dumb in absolute terms. But by the standard of the office he held, he was extremely shallow. He had the opposite of a keen mind which is why he often went with his gut because there was so little in his head. He was in way way over his head but was so arrogant that he did not to care. He may also have been simple enough not to know just how lacking he truly was.

        • sheila says:

          Wow, it’s like 2003 all over again on this site. I’m having a deja vu.

          Nothing you say alters my take of the man, although your sentiments are very familiar to me.

          Oh, and “YMMV”= “Your mileage may vary”, which clearly it does. That’s cool. I prefer political diversity.

          Also, I do not share your cynicism about America. The Founders didn’t have one vision of the country – they had multiple competing visions: if you talked to Jefferson you’d get one thing, and he and Adams fought for their entire lives over the meaning of democracy, constitutional democracies, government, and “the people”. James Monroe had another view. The Southerners had their view. They were not united. The constitution, and the Declaration, and the amendments all came out of deep compromise on both sides – some of the compromises just prolonged the inevitable (like editing slavery out of the Declaration) – and some compromises we continue to fight out in the courts. That’s as it should be.

          If they had one vision, it was that the conversation of government must always continue. It means we allow for mess, for backtracking, for losing our way. It’s not “neat”. But I never trust anyone who yearns for neat-ness in government. They’re fascists at heart.

          • sheila says:

            Oh, and if I had to pick one of “those guys” who really saw the future, saw the world we live in now, it would be Alexander Hamilton – who was eventually railroaded out of politics. But he saw it all: an integrated society (he was the only true abolitionist in the bunch), an economy not based on land-ownership but industry and cities, and powerful banks, and a powerful central government.

            He was a true visionary. He was seen as a crackpot for much of the time, although clearly he rose pretty far pretty fast. But it’s amazing how far he saw, and I always wondered if that was because of his immigrant status. He was not “attached” to one colony, like Adams was to Massachusetts or Jefferson/Madison/Washington were to Virginia, and etc. He was just ” American”.

            Pretty amazing guy.

          • sheila says:

            In other words: it’s Alexander Hamilton’s world and we’re just living in it.

            Not too shabby, I might say.

          • Sean O says:

            There is nothing new under the sun. We have always had knaves and rogues in society and in positions of power [and good & great and poor to middling]. The Founding Fathers were not saints or perfect men by any means. They were no freer from the human condition than anyone else. But I do believe they were a rather intelligent and talented bunch of men despite their flaws and prejudices and self seeking. They battled and disagreed with each other harshly politically & personally even to the point of death for your Hamilton. But I do sense that in the end they actually held ideas and principles be they right or wrong that they battled for. In too much of today’s leadership I see no core values but only shifting opportunism, seeking power for powers sake & personal gain rather than pushing forward beliefs & programs whether right or wrong which are intended to benefit the nation as a whole.

            Democracy is the idea and republic is the structure and it always has been messy. I just believe we have had a bad run of “leaders” over the last 20-30 years allowing us to drift or shift into a plutocracy. Tom Delay of Texas, a truly odious figure, would be to me the epitome of everything that is wrong with recent American politics & leadership.

            Jefferson was very concerned about a free press and informed and engaged public [White propertied men at the time, much broader now]. Restoring an independent press with the goal of public service, monitoring the workings of power in our society rather than infotaining people into idiocy is a crucial if we are going to rebuild a working republic based on serious conversation and meaningful rather than empty language. And citizens must turn off the TV, get off the couch and take an active responsible part in their lives and the life of the country. Benjamin Franklin said after a Constitutional convention, “a Republic if you can keep it.” He was a smart man, and he knew our republic, our democracy was not a spectator sport. He clearly suggests one must be active to”keep” the republic. As someone else said, “for evil men to thrive, all that is necessary is for good men [& woman] to do nothing.”

          • sheila says:

            Well, I totally agree that the last 20 years has been pretty stupid as far as leaders, and the media hasn’t helped. I love politics, but I have learned that it is not something I want to talk about here on the site – at least not current-day “did ya get a load of that speech” kind of talk – because people seem to just not be able to be civil about it. I started out writing about politics here, and while it was sometimes invigorating, for the most part it was toxic and annoying. People just go APESHIT. I get it, you “care” … but I decided to ditch the politics and write about art and books and movies, because it was fun and I love it more than politics.

            It’s been fun, however, to “slip politics in” – there was all of those Joan Didion essays about politics where I got to let the Sheila Freak Flag fly, and it’s been fun to talk about it in these Orwell posts.

            I like your thoughts on the Founders. They knew they were incorporating mess INTO the thing. They were bold enough to do that. No other government had tried it. Government is usually in the business of keeping things tidy. So clearly we will lose our way from time to time, and argue endlessly over what they meant.

            But I have hope! I like our system best.

  2. Dg says:

    On message. What would Orwell think about that modern political term? It seems to me any national politician these days at least starts out as a retail, hand shaking, back slapping person who actually has a soul and is capable of having a two way conversations. As they rise on the scene they get “handlers” . What do the handlers advise? Don’t say shit. Actually, say shit but say the same shit over and over. Nothing else. Infrastructure, investment, middle class, working people. Stay on message. Don’t get off message It’s Orwellian.
    Keep your thought to 140 characters or less. Orwellian.

    • sheila says:

      Very good point. That’s it exactly. Say stuff, you don’t have to mean it or even care about it, as long as you cover the “talking points”.

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