“Politics and the English language”

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell argues that the English language becomes “ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but [and?] the slovenliness of our language [also] makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”.

Orwell cites examples to show two common faults: staleness of imagery and lack of precision.

In his analysis, Orwell discusses general characteristics of bad writing, including pretentious diction and meaningless words. His purpose is to show ‘the special connection between politics and the debasement of language’.

Source: eNotes.com


Orwell lists:

tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged.

  1. DYING METAPHORS. A ‘dead’ metaphor has effectively reverted to being an ordinary word.. Dying metaphors [or] worn-out metaphors have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Many are used without knowledge of their meaning (e.g. ‘rift’), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed. For examples, see “Dying Metaphors“.
  2. 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 extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. A characteristic phrase is ‘render inoperative’. See more example at “Verbal False Limbs”.

    The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by phrases such as ‘with respect to’ and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as ‘greatly to be desired’

  3. PRETENTIOUS DICTION.
    • Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements.
    • Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics,
    • while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion.
    • Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g. and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language.
    • Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers(1).
    • The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French;
    • but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
  4. MEANINGLESS WORDS. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. See examples in “Meaningless words“.

Orwell suggests 5 rules to simplify language and make the meaning clear:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

“Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

“One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and … 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”.