George Orwell: Politics and the English Language

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In 1946, George Orwell published an essay in the British literary magazine Horizon, arguing against poor usage of English by modern writers. In the essay, Orwell cited five examples of "the English language as it is now habitually written." The examples are almost hilariously hard to follow. The first is obfuscated by a series of negatives: "I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien (sic) to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate." (The quote is attributed to Professor Harold Laski, from an essay in Freedom of Expression.) Others are just as bad, though more complex in their language -- much like Chomskybot, they seem like English, but devoid of meaning and clarity.

Orwell writes, "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." Too true, sir. Here's a snippet from early in the essay:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. 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. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer.

Orwell goes on to dissect a variety of problems with English usage, and he spends a lot of time discussing euphemism in political speech ("ethnic cleansing," anyone?). He also offers a series of six simple rules that should help anyone write (and perhaps think) more clearly. Read Orwell's essay for more.

Also, thanks to commenter C. Bukowski for suggesting this essay in the comments on yesterday's post pointing to Orwell's diaries. Now I've gotta find some Bukowski essays....

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August 14, 2008 - 11:21am
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