July 21, 2024

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language (Narrated)



Published May 14, 2023, 6:20 p.m. by Courtney


George orwell's politics and the English language is a scathing critique of the state of writing in his time. He bemoans the decline of the English language, and attributes it to the political climate of the time. He argues that the political climate has led to a decline in the quality of writing, and that this decline is having a negative impact on the way people think.

orwell's essay is a must-read for anyone who cares about the state of the English language. It is a fascinating look at how the political climate of a nation can impact the way its people communicate.

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politics and the english language an

essay

by george orwell most people who bother

with the matter at all

would admit that the english language is

in a bad way

but it is generally assumed that we

cannot by conscious action do anything

about it

our civilization is decadent and our

language

so the argument runs must inevitably

share in the general collapse

it follows that any struggle against the

abuse of language

is a sentimental archaism like

preferring candles to electric light

or handsome cabs to aeroplanes

underneath this

lies the half-conscious belief that

language

is a natural growth and not an

instrument which we shape for our

own purposes now it is clear that the

decline of a language

must ultimately have political and

economic causes

it is not due simply to the bad

influence of this

or that individual writer but an effect

can become a cause

reinforcing the original cause and

producing the same effect

in an intensified form and so on

indefinitely

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

meanwhile here are five specimens of the

english language

as it is now habitually written these

five passages have not been picked out

because they are especially bad

i could have quoted far worse if i had

chosen but because they illustrate

various of the mental vices from which

we now suffer

they are a little below average but are

fairly representative examples

i number them so that i can refer back

to them when necessary

1. i am not indeed sure whether it is

not true to say that the milton who once

seemed

not unlike a 17th century shelley had

not become

out of an experience ever more bitter in

each year

more alien to the founder of that jesuit

sect which

nothing could induce him to tolerate

professor harold lasky

essay in freedom of expression

two above all we cannot play ducks and

drakes with a native battery of idioms

which prescribes such egregious

co-locations

of vocables as the basic put up with

for tolerate or put at a loss

for bewilder professor lancelot hogben

interglossia three on the one side we

have the free personality

by definition it is not neurotic for it

has neither conflict nor

dream its desires such as they are are

transparent for they are just what

institutional

approval keeps in the forefront of

consciousness

another institutional pattern would

alter their number and

intensity there is little in them that

is natural

irreducible or culturally dangerous

on the other side the social bond itself

is nothing but the mutual reflection of

these self-secure

integrities recall the definition of

love

is not this the very picture of a small

academic

where is there a place in this hall of

mirrors for either personality or

fraternity

essay on psychology in politics

new york four all the best people from

the gentleman's

clubs and all the frantic fascist

captains

united in common hatred of socialism and

bestial horror at the rising tide of the

mass revolutionary movement

have turned to acts of provocation to

foul

incendiarism to medieval legends of

poisoned wells

to legalize their own destruction of

proletarian organizations

and rouse the agitated petty bourgeoisie

to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the

fight against the revolutionary way out

of the crisis

communist pamphlet 5 if a new spirit is

to be infused into this old country

there is one thorny and contentious

reform which must be tackled

and that is the humanization and

galvanization of the bbc

timidity here will bespeak canker and

atrophy of the soul

the heart of britain may be sound and of

strong beat for instance

but the british lions roar at present is

like that of bottom

in shakespeare's a midsummer night's

dream as gentle as

any sucking dove a virile new britain

cannot continue indefinitely to be

introduced in the eyes or rather ears of

the world by the effet

langers of langham place brazenly

masquerading as standard english

when the voice of britain is heard at

nine o'clock better far

and infinitely less ludicrous to hear

aiches honestly dropped than the present

priggish

inflated inhibited schoolmarmish arch

brain of blameless bashful mewing

maidens

letter in tribune each of these passages

has faults of its own

but quite apart from avoidable ugliness

two qualities are common to all of them

the first

is staleness of imagery the other is

lack of precision the writer either has

a meaning and cannot express it or he

inadvertently says something 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 to be able to think of

terms of speech that are not

hackneyed prose consists less and less

of words

chosen for the sake of their meaning and

more and more

of phrases tacked together like the

sections of a prefabricated henhouse

i list below with notes and examples

various of the tricks by means of which

the work

of prose construction is habitually

dodged

dying metaphors a newly invented

metaphor assists thought by

evoking a visual image while on the

other hand

a metaphor which is technically dead e.g

iron resolution has in effect reverted

to being

an ordinary word and can generally be

used without loss of vividness

but in between these two classes there

is a huge

dump of worn out metaphors which have

lost all

evocative power and are merely used

because they save people the trouble of

inventing phrases for themselves

examples are ring the changes on

take up the cudgel's four toe the line

ride roughshod over stand shoulder to

shoulder with

play into the hands of no axe to grind

grist to the mill fishing in troubled

waters

on the order of the day achilles heel

swan song hotbed

many of these are used without knowledge

of their meaning what is a rift for

instance

and incompatible metaphors are

frequently mixed a sure sign that the

writer is not interested in what he is

saying

some metaphors now current have been

twisted out of their original meaning

without those who use them even being

aware of the fact

for example toe the line is sometimes

written

as toe the line another example is

the hammer and the anvil now always used

with the implication that the anvil gets

the worst of it

in real life it is always the anvil that

breaks the hammer

never the other way about a writer who

stopped to think what he was saying

would avoid perverting the original

phrase

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

characteristic phrases are rendered

inoperative

militate against prove unacceptable

make contact with be subject to

give rise to give grounds for

have the effect of play a leading part

or role in make itself felt

take effect exhibit a tendency to

serve the purpose of etc etc

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 onto 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 gerund

by examination of instead of

by examining the range of verbs is

further cut down by means of the

eyes and d formations and banal's

statements are given an appearance of

profundity

by means of the not un formation

simple conjunctions and prepositions are

replaced by such phrases

as with respect to having regard to

the fact that by dint of in view

of in the interest of on the hypothesis

that and the ends of sentences are saved

from anti-climax by such resounding

commonplaces

as greatly to be desired cannot be left

out of account

a development to be expected in the near

future

deserving of serious consideration

brought to a satisfactory conclusion

and so on and so forth pretentious

diction words like phenomenon

element individual as a noun objective

categorical effective virtual

basic primary promote constitute

exhibit exploit utilize

eliminate liquidate are used to dress up

simple statements and give an air of

scientific impartiality

to biased judgments adjectives like

epoch making epic historic

unforgettable triumphant age-old

inevitable inexorable veritable

are used to dignify the sordid processes

of

international politics while writing

that aims at glorifying war

usually takes on an archaic color its

characteristic words being

realm throne chariot mailed fist

trident sword shield buckler

banner jack boot clarion foreign words

and expressions

such as cul-de-sac ancient regime

deus ex machina mutatis mutandis

status quo like shalton

belt are used to give an air of culture

and elegance except for the useful

abbreviations

i e e g and etc

there is no need for any of the hundred

of foreign phrases now current in

english

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 sub-aqueous and

hundreds of others

constantly gain ground from their

anglo-saxon opposite numbers

the jargon peculiar to marxist writing

hyena

hangman cannibal petty bourgeoisie these

gentry

lackey flunky mad dog white guard

etc consist largely of words translated

from russian

german or french but the normal way of

coining

a new word is to use a latin or greek

root with the appropriate affix

and where necessary the eyes formation

it is often easier to make up words of

this kind

de-regionalize impermissible

extramarital

non-fragmentatory and so forth than to

think up the english words that will

cover one's meaning

the result in general is an increase

in slavindliness and vagueness

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

but are hardly even expected to do so by

the reader

when one critic writes the outstanding

feature of

mr x's work is its living quality

while in other writes the immediately

striking thing about mr

x's work is its peculiar deadness

the reader accepts this as a simple

difference of opinion

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 many political words are

similarly

abused the word fascism has now

no meaning except insofar as it

signifies

something not desirable the words

democracy

socialism freedom patriotic realistic

justice have each of them several

different meanings which cannot be

reconciled with one another

in the case of a word like democracy not

only is there no agreed definition

but the attempt to make one is resisted

from all sides

it is almost universally felt that when

we call a country

democratic we are praising it

consequently

the defenders of every kind of regime

claim that it is a democracy

and fear that they might have to stop

using that word

if it were tied down to any one meaning

words of this kind are often used in a

consciously dishonest way

that is the person who uses them has his

own private definition

but allows his hero to think he means

something quite different

statements like marshall patane was a

true patriot

the soviet press is the freest in the

world

the catholic church is opposed to

persecution

are almost always made with intent to

deceive

other words used in variable meanings in

most cases

more or less dishonestly are class

totalitarian science progressive

reactionary bourgeois equality

now that i have made this catalog of

swindles and perversions

let me give another example of the kind

of writing that they lead to

this time it must of its nature be an

imaginary one

i'm going to translate a passage of good

english into modern english

of the worst sort here is a well-known

verse from ecclesiastes

i returned and saw under the sun that

the race is not to the swift

nor the battle to the strong neither yet

bred to the wise nor yet

riches to men of understanding nor yet

favor to men of skill

but time and chance happeneth to them

all

here it is in modern english objective

considerations of contemporary phenomena

compels the conclusion that success or

failure in competitive activities

exhibits no tendency to be commensurate

with innate capacity

but that a considerable element of the

unpredictable must invariably be taken

into account

this is a parody but not a very gross

one

exhibit three above for instance

contains several patches of the same

kind of english

it will be seen that i have not made a

full translation

the beginning and ending of the sentence

follow the original meaning

fairly closely but in the middle the

concrete illustrations

race battle bread dissolve

into the vague phrase success or failure

in competitive activities

this had to be so because no modern

writer of the kind i am discussing

no one capable of using phrases like

objective considerations of contemporary

phenomena

would ever tabulate his thoughts in that

precise and detailed way

the whole tendency of modern prose is

away from concreteness

now analyze these two sentences a little

more closely

the first contains 49 words but only 60

syllables

and all its words are those of everyday

life the second

contains 38 words of 90 syllables

18 of its words are from latin roots and

one from greek

the first sentence contains six vivid

images

and only one phrase time and chance that

could be called

vague the second contains not a single

fresh

arresting phrase and in spite of its 90

syllables it gives only a shortened

version

of the meaning contained in the first

yet without a doubt it is the second

kind of sentence that is gaining ground

in modern english

i do not want to exaggerate this kind of

writing is not yet

universal and outcrops of simplicity

will occur

here and there in the worst written page

still if you or i

were told to write a few lines on the

uncertainty of human fortunes

we should probably come much nearer to

my imaginary sentence than to the one

from ecclesiastes as i have tried to

show

modern writing at its worst does not

consist in picking out words for the

sake of their meaning

and inventing images in order to make

the meaning clearer

it consists in gumming together long

strips of words which have already been

set in order by someone else

and making the results presentable by

sheer humbug

the attraction of this way of writing is

that it is easy

it is easier even quicker once you have

the habit

to say in my opinion it is not an

unjustifiable assumption that

than to say i think if you use

ready-made phrases

you not only don't have to hunt about

for the words you also don't have to

bother with the rhythms of your

sentences

since these phrases are generally so

arranged as to be

more or less euphonious when you are

composing in a hurry when you are

dictating to a stenographer for instance

or making a public speech

it is natural to fall into a pretentious

latinized style

tags like a consideration which we

should do well to bear in mind

or a conclusion to which all of us would

readily ascent

will save many a sentence from coming

down with a bump

by using stale metaphors similes and

idioms you save

much mental effort at the cost of

leaving your meaning vague

not only for your reader but for

yourself this is the significance of

mixed metaphors

the sole aim of a metaphor is to call up

a visual image

when these images clash as in the

fascist octopus has sung

its swan song the jack boot is thrown

into the melting pot

it can be taken as certain that the

writer has not seen a mental image of

the objects he is naming

in other words he's not really thinking

look again at the examples i gave at the

beginning of this essay

professor lasky one uses five negatives

in 53 words

one of these is superfluous making

nonsense of the whole passage

and in addition there is the slip alien

for

akin making further nonsense and several

avoidable pieces of clumsiness which

increase the general vagueness

professor hogbin too plays ducks and

drakes with a battery which is able to

write prescriptions

and while disapproving of the everyday

phrase put up with

is unwilling to look egregious up in the

dictionary and see what it means

three if one takes an uncharitable

attitude towards it

is simply meaningless probably one could

work out its intended meaning by

reading the whole of the article in

which it occurs in four

the writer knows more or less what he

wants to say but an accumulation of

stale phrases

chokes him like tea leaves blocking a

sink

in five words and meaning have almost

parted company

people who write in this manner usually

have a general emotional meaning

they dislike one thing and want to

express solidarity with another

but they are not interested in the

detail of what they are saying

a scrupulous writer in every sentence

that he writes will ask himself at least

four questions

thus what am i trying to say

what words will express it what

image or idiom will make it clearer

is this image fresh enough to have an

effect

and he will probably ask himself two

more could i put it more shortly

have i said anything that is avoidably

ugly

but you are not obliged to go to all

this trouble you can shirk it by simply

throwing your mind

open and letting the ready-made phrases

come crowding in

they will construct your sentences for

you even think your thoughts for you to

a certain extent

and at need they will perform the

important service of partially

concealing your meaning

even from yourself it is at this point

that the special connection between

politics and the debasement of language

becomes clear

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 manifestos 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

blood-stained 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 towards 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 of 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

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 and 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 is itself a kind of

euphemism

a mass of latin words falls upon the

facts like soft snow

blurring the outlines 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 10 or 15 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

aspirin

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 he felt impelled to

write it

i open it at random and here is almost

the first sentence that 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

foundation of a cooperative 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 anesthetizes a

portion of one's brain

i said earlier that the decadence of our

language is probably curable

those who deny this would argue if they

produced an argument at all

that language merely reflects existing

social conditions

and that we cannot influence its

development by any direct tinkering with

words and constructions

so far as the general tone or spirit of

a language goes

this may be true but it is not true in

detail

silly words and expressions have often

disappeared

not through any evolutionary process but

owing to the conscious action of a

minority

two recent examples were explore every

avenue

and leave no stone unturned which were

killed by the jeers of a few journalists

there is a long list of fly blown

metaphors which could similarly be

gotten rid of if enough people would

interest themselves in the job

and it should also be possible to laugh

the not

unformation out of existence to reduce

the amount of latin

and greek in the average sentence to

drive out foreign phrases

and strayed scientific words and in

general to make pretentiousness

unfashionable but all these are minor

points

the defense of the english language

implies more than this and perhaps it is

best

to start by saying what it does not

imply

to begin with it has nothing to do with

archaism

with a salvaging of obsolete words and

turns of speech

or with the setting up of a standard

english which must never be departed

from

on the contrary it is especially

concerned with the scrapping of every

word or idiom which has outworn its

usefulness

it has nothing to do with correct

grammar and syntax which are of no

importance so long as one makes one's

meaning clear

or with the avoidance of americanisms or

with having what is called a good

prose style on the other hand it is not

concerned with fake

simplicity and the attempt to make

written english colloquial

nor does it even imply in every case

preferring the saxon word to the latin

one

though it does imply using the fewest

and shortest words that will cover one's

meaning

what is above all needed is to let the

meaning choose the word

and not the other way about in prose the

worst thing one can do with words is to

surrender them

when you think of a concrete object you

think wordlessly

and then if you want to describe the

thing you have been visualizing

you probably hunt about till you find

the exact words that seem to fit it

when you think of something abstract you

are more inclined to use words from the

start

and unless you make a conscious effort

to prevent it the existing dialect will

come rushing in and do the job for you

at the expense of blurring or even

changing your meaning

probably it is better to put off using

words as long as possible and get one's

meaning

as clear as one can through pictures and

sensations

afterwards one can choose not simply

accept

the phrases that will best cover the

meaning and then switch round

and decide what impression one's words

are likely to make

on another person this last effort of

the mind cuts out

all stale or mixed images all

prefabricated phrases

needless repetitions and humbug and

vagueness generally

but one can often be in doubt about the

effect of a word or a phrase

and one needs rules that one can rely on

when instinct fails

i think the following rules will cover

most cases

1. never use a metaphor simile or

other figure of speech which you are

used to seen and print

two never use a long word where a short

one will do

three if it is possible to cut a word

out

always cut it out four never use the

passive

where you can use the active five

never use a foreign phrase a scientific

word or a jargon word

if you can think of an everyday english

equivalent

six break any of these rules sooner than

say anything outright barbarous

these rules sound elementary and so they

are but they demand a deep change of

attitude in anyone who has grown used to

writing in the style

now fashionable one could keep all of

them and still

write bad english but one could not

write the kind of stuff that i quoted in

those five specimens at the beginning of

this article

i have not here been considering the

literary use of language

but merely language as an instrument for

expressing and not

for concealing or preventing thought

stuart chase and others have come near

to claiming that all

abstract words are meaningless and have

used this as a pretext for advocating a

kind of political quietism

since you don't know what fascism is how

can you struggle against fascism

one need not swallow such absurdities as

this but one ought to recognize that the

present political chaos is connected

with the decay of language

and that one can probably bring about

some improvement by starting at the

verbal end

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

language and with variations this is

true of all political parties

from conservatives to anarchists 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 from time to time one can

even if one jeers loudly enough

send some worn out and useless phrase

some jack boot achilles heel hot bed

melting pot

acid test veritable infernal or other

lump

of verbal refuse into the dust bin where

it belongs

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