George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language: Summary and Analysis

George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language

George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language raises somewhat similar concerns as his ‘1984’. It is one of his most famous essays written about the decay of language and its use  to conceal political sins. It raises concerns regarding the spreading decay of language whose roots lie somewhere in politics.  He compares the decay with a chain reaction. Every other writer was feeling bound to be a part of the chain. The author provides five examples to demonstrate how loss of purpose and clarity has infected language. Orwell notes that the thing runs like an infection and spreads  far and wide through imitation only for people are not interested in taking the necessary trouble. However, the process according to him is reversible.  In these five paragraphs he had selected, Orwell highlights how stale imagery and lack of precision have made language become deficient in purpose. He highlights some specific problems like dying metaphors and pretentious diction which have corrupted language and if thoughts can corrupt language, frivolous language too can corrupt thoughts and the problem can spread farther and farther.

In the initial paragraph the author expresses his concern over the poor state of English language and while some people are concerned with it, they too assume that nothing can be done about it. The argument such people offer is that if the society is decaying, language too will.  The problem Orwell notes is that any struggle against this decay is considered sentimental archaism or the imitation of antiquated forms of speech because of an old love for them. It is considered a fight against progress and change. However, change must not come at the loss of originality and meaning. Orwell considers that a frightful loss of meaning is happening because of such poor experimentations. People also believe that language has evolved naturally and is not shaped and used by us to suit our own purposes. It is a tool you use to communicate ideas and the way you use it affects the meaning. This decay has political and economic causes and is not the bad influence of an individual writer, he notes. He then explains how the chain reaction happens. The effect becomes the cause, intensifying the effect further and the reaction continues indefinitely. A man fails and gets drunk and then keeps failing because of getting into this poor habit. Something similar is happening to English and not because poor writers employ foolish ideas but because unkempt English language makes it easier for them to have foolish thoughts.

Orwell might very well be indicating towards the use of English to gain cheap success and publicity or to achieve other nefarious ends. Modern English has grown contaminated due to such bad habits and if they could be avoided, people will be able to think clearly. This is a necessary first step towards ‘political regeneration’.  The way they had been using language to conceal the biggest political sins had led to a very high level of degeneration. Orwell wanted that the struggle against poor English did not remain the exclusive concern of professional writers. He highlights five sample passages that are representative of these poor habits. While there were worse samples available, he chose these specifically because they were fairly representative of the problems he was trying to highlight. The main problems apart from the ugliness which could have been avoided with some attention, Orwell notes there are two – staleness of imagery and lack of precision.

What is notably black about these passages is that the writer is not concerned at all for meaning.  Orwell notes that either these writers lack a sense of meaning or they are unable to express it or they are not at all concerned with what their words mean. This is both vague and incompetent writing and these are the most remarkable characteristics of the modern English prose and it is especially true about political writing. Orwell is again concerned for the lack of originality and compares these passages with a pre-planned henhouse. These writers stack words together with no concern for meaning to construct a meaningless mess akin to a henhouse or a sty. He notes some of the techniques commonly used by these writers. These are four of his most notable criticisms made against modern prose and especially political writing.

Dying metaphors:

There are newly invented metaphors and there are dead metaphors. The newly invented ones evoke a visual image while a technically dead metaphor has become ordinary and can be used without loss of vividness. Between these two classes there is another class of worn out or dying metaphors. These metaphors are the ones that have lost their power to evoke an image and are used because they can save people the trouble to invent new phrases for themselves. Orwell cites several examples for such metaphors like Achilles’ Heel, Swan Song, no axe to grind, toe the line etc. Many times writers use incompatible ones together which reflects their lack of interest in creating something meaningful and coherent. Some metaphors are being used in a way that their original meaning is lost and the writer is unaware of this fact. This he calls perverted use of the original phrase. For example, in case of ‘hammer and the anvil’, now the implication is always that the anvil gets the worst of it. In reality, it is just the opposite and writers should stop twisting the meaning of the original phrase. The author is referring to soulless prose which had become the norm in political writing. 

Operators or Verbal False limbs:

Operators do away with the need to select nouns and verbs and create an appearance of symmetry by padding each sentence with extra syllables. Some of the key phrases include render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable etc. A noun or an adjective is attached to a verb to create such false limbs. A verb like prove, render, play, form etc stops being a single word. Moreover, passive voice is given preference over active voice and noun constructions instead of gerunds. - ise, - de and – un formations are also used to twist language. Phrases like by dint of and in view of are being used to replace the prepositions and conjunctions and to prevent an anticlimax at the end of sentences, they are using resounding commonplaces like as greatly to be desired and deserving of serious consideration and so on. Orwell has highlighted a major discrepancy. This was critical neglect and if carried on further would lead to even more meaninglessness.

Pretentious diction:

By pretentious diction, the author means use of words, phenomenon, element etc to dress simple sentences and create an impression of scientific impartiality in biased judgements. Use of adjectives like age old and triumphant to dignify immoral processes in world politics has become common. Moreover, writers use words like realm, throne, chariot etc to glorify war. Similarly, foreign words are used in plenty to create an air of culture and elegance. Such mindless injection of foreign words into English bothered Orwell. Such bad writers abound in the sphere of sociology, politics and science who believe that the Latin and Greek words are better than Saxon and it is why hundreds of Saxon words have been replaced by Latin and Greek words. Marxist writing has borrowed from Russian and German or French while the normal way of coining a new word is to use the Latin or Greek word with an appropriate affix and if necessary  -  ise formation. It is generally easier for writers to create new combinations than seek the right English words and what it results into is loss of meaning. Orwell suggest such writers should not write than produce messed content.

Meaningless words:

In art and literary criticism, it is quite common to come against long passages that are absolutely lacking in meaning. The reader is being forced to digest such passages without being aware of the mistakes being committed. Such words, as are common in art criticism, like romantic, plastic, human, dead etc are strictly meaningless because of their inability to point towards any discoverable object.  What readers often take as a simple difference of view is most often an improper use of language. Several such political words like fascism have grown meaningless out of abuse. Similarly, words like democracy and freedom have several meanings and this allows for deception. Statements like The Soviet Press is the freest in the world are meant to deceive. There are other words too which are most often used dishonestly to deceive people like class, progressive and totalitarian.

Next, he translates a passage from Ecclesiastes to modern English to show how meaning gets altered  or nearly lost due to improper use of language.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

The translation runs something like this

Objective consideration 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.

In this way, he showed how sentences had lost their concreteness in modern English prose and despite its plentiful use of words that are rooted in Latin and Greek, the translation does not deliver half the meaning as the original. This type of English is easier to write and that’s where its attractiveness lies. Orwell calls it the use of readymade phrases where you do not need to bother for rhythm since these phrases are arranged in a manner to seem musical.  However, such pretentious Latinized style is easier to fall for if you are in a hurry. While the meaning is left vague, one is also able to avid the labor through the use of such stale metaphors, idioms and similes. In the first of the 5 examples he had cited of clumsy passages there were some nonsense usage, avoidable clumsiness adding to the overall sloppiness. He clarifies the case with these clumsy passages that people writing in such a manner are trying to make the case about one thing and without being interested in the detail of what he is saying. At last, Orwell is pointing that All that glitters in English language is not pure gold. Writers have continued to mix it with cheaper metals to make it look stronger. Adulteration is resulting in dilution of meaning and a lack of soul and voice.

There are simple four or five questions Orwell suggests that a serious writer must ask of himself when writing.

  • What he is trying to say?
  • What words will express it best?
  • What image or idiom will make the picture clear?
  • Is this image fresh enough to affect?
  • Could he say it in less words?
  • Is there something ugly that can be avoided?

Otherwise you can avoid all this exercise and open your mind to readymade phrases that will conceal the meaning not just from your readers but from you as well. You might better write while you sleep.

Orwell now turns to political writing which roughly according to him is bad writing. Generally the political writer is some form of rebel who is expressing his own opinions rather than pursuing some party line. Orthodoxy does not leave space for originality and instead demands a style that is far more imitative and lifeless.  So the readymade phrases abound everywhere in political language from pamphlets to speeches. When a dummy speaks from some platform, he repeats these phrases mechanically. One cannot try to find anything homelike or original in his speech. Not just this, in order to pursue such mechanical jargon, the speaker has gone to some extent to become a machine and speak something that feels like being spoken by a robot. The speaker looks like talking into the microphone with no clear idea of what he is talking about. These are just noises coming out of his throat because he has grown so unconscious to what he is speaking and become habituated to just like the responses people utter in Church. He is more of a programmed machine carrying out his task of speaking and if one tries to note the purpose and meaning behind his speech, he will find nothing worth remembering there. Orwell calls it political conformity or following the norm of the group. He notes that language is being used to defend the most indefensible sins like the continuance of British rule in India, dropping of bombs on Japan, purges in Russia and similar deformities that do not agree with what these political parties vouch. The political phraseology is being used to conceal the biggest sins committed against humanity like robbing of peasants and machine gunning of cattle. Orwell cites the example of an English professor trying to defend Russian totalitarianism with euphemism. He uses a mass of latin words to cover the facts and details.

Insincerity is a great enemy of clarity and when one’s real and declared purposes differ, he reverts to the use of long words and exhausted idioms that Orwell compares with ‘Cuttlefish squirting ink’. He connects language with politics to show how moral degradation in politics has led to degradation of language. Politics has become a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. No one can keep out of politics and since the general atmosphere has grown bad, there is no chance of language remaining untouched. He expected German, Russian and Italian languages to have suffered a similar damage because of political dictatorship. Moreover, he adds if thoughts can corrupt language then language also has the potential to corrupt thought. Bad usage spread by tradition and imitation and even the people who could have otherwise known better get touched by it and feel bound to imitate. Such language, while it is very comfortable to use and gives rise to a continuous temptation for repeated use, it becomes as convenient as the aspirin always within your reach.

Towards the end, Orwell offers a cure for such decadence that language has become. People who deny this, often state that language merely reflects existing social norms and it cannot be affected directly by tinkering with words. This is true but only to a limited extent. Silly words and expressions have most often disappeared from English not just as a part of evolution of language but because of conscious action by a minority. The author cites two examples of 'leaving no stone unturned' and 'explore every avenue'.  A similar long list of metaphors could be done away with if people worked on it consciously and drove out those stray scientific words and Greek and Latin which had populated English. In this way they could get rid of pretentious writing by making it unfashionable.  However, to save English would need more than just this.

To start with, it is not archaism as we are not fighting to set a standard in English which must not be deviated from or trying to save some obsolete words or turns of speech. On the contrary, the concern is to remove the words or phrases that have outlived their usefulness and by avoiding Americanism. It is neither concerned with fake simplicity or with making English colloquial. Neither is it concerned with always preferring the Saxon over Latin but it is concerned with using fewer and shorter words to express yourself. One must not surrender his meaning to his choice of words but instead choose words according to the meaning.   To evoke the right images, one should put off the use of words till the last moment and first sensationalize and picturize and afterwards choose the words accordingly. This will help to remove the stale images and clumsiness. Orwell gave some rules that could very well be applied in most cases.

  • Do not use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
  • Do not use a long word where a short one can do.
  • Cut a word out if it is possible to.
  • Do not use passive where you can use active.
  • Do not use a foreign phrase or a scientific word or jargon if you can think of an English substitute.
  • However, if you feel like you are going to say something barbarous break any of these rules freely.

One would require a deep change of attitude even if one wants to adopt these elementary rules. However, one can write bad English even after having adopted these but that will still be better than the five passages that Orwell has quoted in his essay. He too emphasizes simplicity and that if you are ready to simplify, you can avoid the biggest follies that orthodoxy could have made you commit. Political language is designed to speak lies and to make murder look respectful. These frivolous and worn out phrases must be sent out into the dustbin. If one cannot change everything in a day, one can at least change his own habit. Orwell has written in detail about how English has decayed with decaying politics and to stop this decay one would need to get rid of several bad habits, one of which  is to get rid of the readymade phrases which may make your language seem fashionable but will conceal meaning or prevent any effect. The punch in Orwell's essay is inescapable. The essay alarms us against escaping the standards of written English because it gives rise to a gap that makes meaning suffer.


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