Essay Review: Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

patelTitle: Politics and the English Language
Author: George Orwell
Published: 1945
Genre: NF
Format: Paperback
Pages: 24
Source: Own
Date Read: April 20, 2018
Grade: A-
Synopsis: ‘Politics and the English Language’ is widely considered Orwell’s most important essay on style. Style, for Orwell, was never simply a question of aesthetics; it was always inextricably linked to politics and to truth.’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.’Language is a political issue, and slovenly use of language and clichés make it easier for those in power to deliberately use misleading language to hide unpleasant political facts. Bad English, he believed, was a vehicle for oppressive ideology, and it is no accident that ‘Politics and the English Language’ was written after the close of World War II. (Goodreads)

Review: Looking at this essay solely from a political viewpoint, I agree with Orwell one hundred percent. When politicians and world leaders manipulate language to suit their needs, it can be dangerous. He says of (supposed) democracies:

In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make on 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 régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. (9)

Certain countries come to mind: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, etc. When we have words like these, he says, we can have our own meanings in our minds and say something we know others will interpret differently in an effort to trick them.

He argues against what he calls “modern English,” which is essentially jargon. When a statement is made more complicated than it needs to be, many people are going to either misinterpret the meaning, create their own meaning, or simply misunderstand the entire message. This is prevalent in politics. It allows people to talk around an issue without actually getting to the heart of it. As he writes: “Political 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 (20).”

Orwell also addresses the problem of mixing metaphors. “The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image,” he writes. “When these images clash–as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting-pot–it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words, he is not really thinking (12).” These metaphors are unclear because they don’t make sense. Orwell’s main message in this essay, if it can be shrunk to one straightforward thesis statement, is that English should be clear and simple.

In reference to political language that uses tired, repetitive phrases, Orwell explicitly draws up a powerful mental image:

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 her 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 favourable to political conformity. (13-14)

Yaasss George.

He also goes over how English has become muddied in a way by the use of foreign words and phrases. I don’t quite agree with this. Sometimes we just need to borrow from other languages because English cannot describe something simply enough. Other languages often have words that cover certain feelings for which English would have to use many words to describe. One example would be tsundoku, which is a Japanese word meaning “to buy books and not read them and to allow them to pile up.” If there is an English equivalent, then that should be used. But often we use foreign words because we don’t know how to express ourselves otherwise.

People remember Orwell’s writing for many reasons: its clarity, its honesty, its distinctiveness. But I want to point out how beautifully he used the English language himself. My favorite example from the essay is this: “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details (15).”

At the end of the essay, Orwell lists some rules to follow, like not using clichés, being concise, using a short word over a long one, etc. His last rule is to “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous” (19). I like that last one. Generally, when talking about nonfiction writing, I agree with him. He does say he is not talking about literary writing, which is good, because you can’t have such strict rules for literature as an art form. One could argue that nonfiction prose writing is also an art form (and I’d agree), but it does require stricter form to allow for clarity and understanding.

I don’t think I’ve done a very good job of talking about this essay, and Orwell would probably have some negative things to say about how I’ve written this review. I suggest everyone read it, though, because it really is a good and thought-provoking piece. This was a reread for me, and I’m glad I decided to give it another look. I read this in a small pamphlet-sized edition with a bonus review of Mein Kampf that only cost a few dollars, but I would recommend trying to find it in a collection of his other essays. I’ll include links to the collection I first read it in, which has some other good essays.

Politics and the English Language
The Book Depository | Amazon | Library | Goodreads

A Collection of Essays
The Book Depository
| Amazon | Library | Goodreads


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