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Politics and the English Language (Penguin Modern Classics) Kindle Edition
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Orwell selects five passages as illustrations of various ‘mental vices from which we now suffer’. Amongst those are writings from Harold Laski, Lancelot Hogben, a communist pamphlet and a letter to Tribune the Left-Wing newspaper to which Orwell frequently contributed. Each one of them demonstrates a staleness of imagery, a lack of precision and are filled with hackneyed phrases, ‘tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen house’. The are filled with worn-out metaphors such as ‘no axe to grind’, ‘ring the changes’, ‘grist to the mill’ and ‘play into the hands of’. Many such metaphors suggest the writer is uninterested in what he is saying and often twist their original meaning as in ‘tow the line’ instead of ‘toe the line’.
He refers to operators or verbal false limbs such as ‘militate against’, ‘prove unacceptable’ and ‘have the effect of’ all of which have as their purpose the elimination of simple verbs. Newspaper editors use similar techniques as a means of maximising space, often substituting commas for conjunctions or prepositions. In the industrial world union leaders can be relied upon to condemn the latest ‘derisory offer before effecting a ‘satisfactory conclusion’’. Orwell deplores pretentious diction such as objective, element, basic, virtual and exploit which ‘are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of impartiality to biased judgements’. Adjectives such as ‘epoch-making’ ‘epic’ ‘historical’ - and more recently in soccer ‘scorpion’ - are used to dignify the ordinary with a status it does not deserve.
According to Orwell ‘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 use unnecessary words such as expedite, ameliorate, predict, deracinated, in preference to Anglo-Saxon terms. He is particularly scathing of Marxist writing and its condemnatory tone which uses hyena, petty bourgeois, lackey, flunky and mad dog, terms that are still in use by liberals who call opponents fascist. He attacks meaningless words as used in art and literary criticism where romantic, plastic, human, values, natural and vitality are improperly used outside the pretentious context in which they are developed. In academic studies words carry deceitful meanings such as ‘fascism’ and ‘democracy’, the former signifying something undesirable, the latter something to be praised although Soviet democracy was an oxymoron and used in a consciously dishonest way. Other terms used in this manner are class, science, progressive, reactionary, totalitarian, bourgeois and equality.
Modern writing at its worst does not gum together long strips of words to clarify their meaning but to confuse readers. He points out that stating ‘I think’ is for more accurate than ‘In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that’. Orwell criticised stale metaphors, similes and idioms. Modern writers do not ask ‘What am I trying say?’ but ‘How can I confuse the reader?’ Political writing is particularly bad writing. Orthodoxy produces banality as in Blair’s ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Bush over Iraq. Writing over a half a century earlier Orwell’s perception was accurate. ‘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’ signifying a lack of perception of reality. In Orwell’s time political language consisted ‘largely of euphemism, question begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’ which he was able to express in Animal Farm, a manuscript which was turned down several times owing to the influence of the Ministry of Information.
In Orwell’s eyes the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. ‘All issues are political issues and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia’. Orwell proposes half a dozen rules for good writing. The first is ‘Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print’. Others included ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’ and ‘If it’s possible to cut a word out, do so’. The other three are ‘never use the passive where you can use the active’ or a foreign phrase, scientific word or jargon where there is an everyday English equivalent. Almost whimsically he states ‘Break any of these rulers sooner than say anything outright barbarous’. His contempt for political language is manifest and he consigns it all to the dustbin where it belongs.
The pamphlet also includes a review of the unexpurgated version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf about which wrote in March 1940. He suggests the book was edited from a pro-Hitler position with the intention of toning down its original ferocity and presenting the dictator in a favourable light. To offset any negative publicity the publishers included a note stating that all profits would be devoted to the Red Cross. Orwell was not impressed. He dismissed Hitler’s world-view as rigid and incapable of development. He acknowledges that in Germany at the time Hitler came to power his policies were appealing. Fascism and Nazism were closer to the reality of the human condition than western progressive thought. Two superb essays, four excellent stars.
More clearly it spells out what is wrong with 'modern' writing where the term modern is 50s onwards.
I am very keen on Verbal Behaviour by B F Skinner and the 'truly' modern development of Relational Frame Therapy that has come from this.... finally pushing out Chomsky's "complexity is a better explanation."
Orwell clearly writes against adopting automatic phrasing and styles that Skinner suggested was the root of all language.
But I think Orwell would have appreciated that he was not in opposition to Verbal Behaviour, but independently recognising it.
In spite of the essay being a bit long in the tooth, one cannot say that the practices distressing Orwell have lessened or gone away in the meantime - quite the opposite, it has increased exponentially. As more current and extensive examples show (Unspeak: Words Are Weapons for instance), the effect can be quite damaging, in politics as well as in other walks of life.
Orwell is realistic enough to recognize that we will all continue with bad practices but is calling for more effort being devoted to sharpening the language we use, which in his view - quite correctly - also leads to sharper thinking.
In addition to the title essay, this edition also contains Orwell's review of Hitler's 'Mein Kampf' from March 1940. It is interesting reading this review, which is quite prescient in predicting the outcome of the conflict, as well as more nuanced as could be expected, given that war already broke out.
Overall the essay on the English language is something everyone should read and take to heart, be it that you write in a political, business or other context; and hopefully Orwell will shame us into making a small step towards a clearer, simpler English language.
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