Why I Write (Part II) – Politics and the English Language

Orwell wrote the essay Politics and the English Language in 1946. He argued that English language then was in a bad way: It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. He questioned the common assumption that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Orwell made the point that the downward spiral of co-influence of thought and language is reversible if one is willing to take the trouble to get rid of the bad habits spread by imitation in modern English.

Orwell picked five passages as representative samples to illustrate “various of the mental vices from which we now suffer”. On one hand, those five samples are challenging to read and comprehend. These samples favor long winded words over simple ones. Trying to read it aloud challenges both my mental and vocal strength. On the other hand, to a general public who converse, read, write and think in English as their primary language, including myself, these writings are not especially bad compared with much of the writing we see today. There is some plausible message conveyed yet you cannot quite clearly describe what the writing is about. You could decipher the text one way or another using your own creativity.

In Orwell’s view, these bad writings share two common features: the staleness of imagery and lack of precision.

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.

He further listed the tricks that are commonly used to dodge the work of prose construction: dying metaphors, operators or verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, meaningless words.

Readers probably will find some relevance of part of Orwell’s following paragraph to today’s world:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence 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 political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless 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 stated that the progressive decline of the English language is reversible. He suggested, we should first choose and not simply accept the words or phrases that best cover what we want to express; then switch the choices around and decide what impression the words are likely to make on another person. Furthermore, he proposed six rules as remedy that are applicable not only to political writing but also science, business and other types of writings:

  • 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.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

One of the benefits of good usage of language as an instrument for expressing thought is: If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. This realisation hopefully breaks the negative spiral of confused thinking and degraded usage of the language.

Finally I leave you with this renowned quote of Orwell’s from this essay:

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

 
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