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on 11 April 2017
A must read
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VINE VOICEon 2 January 2017
George Orwell is one of the few writers this reviewer has read extensively. His writing was always clear, thoughtful and has stood the test of time. ‘Politics and The English Language’ is one such essay. Orwell starts from the premise that the decline of the English language has been caused by political and economic factors. It has become ‘ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish’ while the slovenliness of our language has made it easier to have foolish thoughts in the first place. On has only to look at the intemperate language used by both sides in the Brexit debate and obnoxious response of the Democrats to the loss of the Presidential election to know that nothing has changed since Orwell wrote seventy years ago.

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.
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on 23 June 2017
A short but sweet essay on how the English language is currently being abused, considering this was over fifty years ago and the type of writing he is warning against is now the common form of writing, his essay is still relevant. The small book is ended with a short review of Hitler's Mein Kampf which has made me want to read the book myself.
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Politics and the English Language -- packaged here with Orwell's review of Mein Kampf -- is a pamphlet length attack on sloppy writing and the sloppy thinking that generates it, and follows from it. Although it predicts the rise of 'political correctness' by more than 40 years, Orwell's criticism exactly skewers the use of language which replaces everything specific with something general, everything Anglo-Saxon with something Latin, and every definite metaphor with a circumlocution.

I don't really like Orwell -- 1984 and Animal Farm left me depressed -- and much of the world he attacks is now gone. It's difficult not to admire his crisp, surgical prose, though. His attack is not so much on politics but on the kind of writing which was in vogue among political pamphleteers of the day. It has now infected everything, and is referred to as 'management-speak' or 'bureaucratese' or, simply, 'twaddle'.

We can all learn from this. Orwell's own writing, of course, was not immune to the things he criticises here. (As was that sentence: the construction 'not immune' is exactly the kind of thing Orwell is attacking). Nonetheless, if we did even half of what he is recommending, all of our writing would be simple, to the point, and vivid.

--
The very short review of Mein Kampf is included. It is an important article, if only for the one thing which had never occurred to me about Hitler: at the time, everyone liked him. For my generation, Hitler was always the demoniac orator whose portrayal in films exactly matched his record of genocide, torture and annihilation.
This always begged the question -- how was anyone ever taken in by him?

Writing in 1940, and thus unaware of Hitler's worst atrocities, Orwell points out that, until the advent of war, lots of people either liked him or wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. This included Orwell, who had already seen that the inevitable consequence of Hitler's views was that he would try to build an Aryan empire stretching as far as Afghanistan (Orwell's own image).

These two short articles are well worth reading.
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on 11 July 2017
This is very short and simple, and for the price of less than a half pint of Adnams, tells you how to write better.
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.
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What can one say about one's favourite author? One can say: 'cut the bloody 'one' out!' First published in 1945, Orwell's use of the third person singular pronoun now has pretentious connotations or in the words of my electronic Kindle dictionary it is: 'likely to be regarded as pompous or over formal.'

Having said that the author's advice about using the right word rather than an acceptable and overworked phrase is very correct. You see? I'm thinking not reciting. It is much easier to be a blade of grass rather than a distinctive growth clearly seen in the breeze. Your own metaphors would tickle George's insight.

His overview of political language as covering the truth is disturbingly accurate. 'Weapons of mass destruction,' 'making work pay': such use of language disengages the adult human from the political process. Power must never reveal its real intention: to maintain its own abstraction. Truth is ridiculed, torn apart. Irrelevant.

But who dares to consider the right word? Who dares to even contemplate a distinctive remark? Such questions are of this age. A time of plenty. A time without sides. Just money.

***** Reviewing Mein Kampf during the war

Orwell's analysis of the book written by Adolf Hitler manages to attack the man and his support with exactly the opposite approach to the venomous megalomania of the author. The balance of George Orwell's perception of the book is actually quite beautiful.

Central to his review has: 'Hitler's programme...a hundred years hence, is a continuous state of 250 million Germans with plenty of 'living room.'' This is fact not opinion. He understands the pact with Russia as 'an alteration to his time-table' which history has proven to be correct. Yet Orwell also articulates exactly how attractive both the man and his ideas are. The connection with the crucified Christ, of self-sacrifice as a way of living, of pain as a means to an end; ALL resonate with the abuse of language by those NOW in a position of power. It's always about someone else's pain in order to strengthen those with power.

I once read a definition of Fascism as the exploitation of one group of people for the support of another. I would add to that the abuse of language to support that exploitation. Arrogance is always apparent when losers have a coalition. When opposition refuses to highlight every instance of brutal injustice except when an easy headline is offered. And nobody dares suggest a better way forward which includes the very poorest in our society. Better to kick them for points. Even Trade Unions want money from you for your interest in a better future.

'I have reflected that I would certainly kill him if I could get within reach of him' states the reasonable Mr Orwell. Again history supports his murderous intent. But I wonder what George Orwell would make of today's 'brainless empire' of screen watchers? Manipulated by the newspapers and non-stop news channels. All screening the same repetitive 'news.' Dirge for the masses. Free of ideas. Comforting reflection. 'The falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life,' seems he is here after all.
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on 23 February 2013
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Orwell's 1946 essay is an attack against 'the mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence [which] is the the most marked characteristic of English prose'. Orwell's does not intend to concern himself with literary language but 'merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought'.

The essay is a joy to read and Orwell includes substantial real-life examples of bad prose as well as concrete advice on how to avoid it. I found myself wincing in recognition at his examples of ready-made phrases, empty circumlocutions (oops...a Latinate word), and dead or dying metaphors, conscious of how they creep into my own prose.

Orwell's argument is that such vague and baggy prose hides the speaker's real meaning and intention, something which is particularly dangerous when it comes to political language. Orwell practises what he preaches and, as the following example shows, his own prose succeeds in being lucid, artful, and interesting:

"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 squirting out ink."

This book also contains a 1940 review of "Mein Kampf", which is more a reflection on Hitler's image and appeal than an examination of the book's style and content. The print version of this book is a stapled pamphlet consisting of 24 pages of prose (the copyright page wrongly gives the essay's date of publication as 1945). Therefore, if you want a hard copy, I would be tempted to push the boat out and buy Penguin Great Ideas : Why I Write, a 120-page book which contains 'Politics and the English Language' along with a number of other pieces.
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This is a small 20-page pamphlet about the size of a takeaway menu - but with far more rewarding contents. Written in 1945, this does have to be read against the political situation of the time when the so-called degeneration of society was read by Orwell as both a cause and an effect of the decline and abuse of language.

There is much here that I agree with and Orwell's analysis of the way in which language enables, controls and polices thought, political and social conformity is now embedded in the critical theory of people like Derrida, Barthes and Foucault.

But there is also a prescriptive, almost authoritarian, way in which Orwell wants to control language - fix it, stop it evolving, pin it down once and for all - that I disagree with.

I found it odd that he's so hung-up on vocabulary and literary devices - similes, metaphors - but says that grammar and syntax don't matter. I don't think that we can break up language in that way - if we want precision, clarity, sincerity and elegance, there's no point choosing the right word if we put it in the wrong place.

So this is a short read but one which made me argue back - my copy is now full of underlinings, exclamations and marginal notes. And I think that's what Orwell would enjoy.
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I should declare at the start that I'm a signed up Orwell enthusiast. His were among the first adult books I read (alternating with PG Wodehouse, of all authors: though there is a connection between the two which you can find in Orwell's essay "In Defence of PG Wodehouse"). So I am biased. However, I think it's beyond doubt that "Politics and the English Language", first published in 1946, is one of Orwell's best known and most influential essays.

As with many other writings of this period, it shows him developing the themes that underlay Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell's argument here is that the English language is (was) in decay, and that this decay both served, and resulted from, political causes. Obscure language is used to disguise the truth and save a speaker having to think for him- or her-self. If you've read "Nineteen Eighty Four" you'll see parallels with "doublethink" and "duckspeak". Orwell writes as though the 1940s was an especially dire time for political language, and as if things were going from bad to worse. We might wonder about this. Some of the political language of that decade (for example, the speeches of Churchill) is now widely admired, and we know that subsequent decades also produced profound and beautiful oratory from politicians like John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Of course, some of that was still to come. One shouldn't make judgements in hindsight here. I think the point to remember though is that Orwell's message was to guard against woolly language, ready made thought, and dishonesty.

A couple of extracts are worth quoting here which illustrate that this did not end in the 40s.

Orwell denounces words used "...in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different."

Then there is his claim that "...political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible." Orwell cites descriptions of attacks on "defenceless villages... from the air..." being smoothed over by euphemistic language - these also still seem pretty current.

It would be a mistake to take anything in this essay too literally and especially to attempt to draw from it a set of rules. (Orwell does suggest some, but he immediately - and rightly - contradicts himself with the last one: "Break any of these rules rather than say anything downright barbarous".) There is some exaggeration, to make a good point. And to a degree, there has I think been a recent reaction against what was taken to be Orwell's advocating a "plain style" - though in fact he doesn't: he actually says "The defence of the English language... is not concerned with fake simplicity..." But as an impassioned defence of honesty in political speech - and Orwell claims that all speech is political - the essay is still essential reading. I think it has a particular message for our age of word processors, cut-and-paste and the Web, in warning against the re-use of stock phrases to avoid the need for thought.

This version is part of a recent edition of some of Orwell's best known writings, commemorating the centenary of his birth. They have strikingly designed covers (there is an edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the classic orange Penguin style but with the title itself blacked out, a reference to the theme of censorship in the book). Myself, I'd happily buy them all for the covers alone, but you should be aware that this book is very short. (Orwell's review of "Mein Kampf" is thrown in too, which is also interesting - it's where he makes the widely quoted and shrewd observation that people don't always want comfort, luxury and safety but sometimes yearn for battles, flags and parades - but it doesn't make this even a short book, it's essentially a pamphlet).

It's a shame that the treatment of the text doesn't do justice to the visual design. It seems to have been OCR'd and not proofread very well - this may be a copy to display, while keeping a better version of the text for actual reading!
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VINE VOICEon 5 April 2013
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Orwell is to the tyranny of language what Warhol is to celebrity: both men observed basic truths in their chosen fields and, as time has gone on, have retrospectively come to be seen as predictors of the future - in Orwell's case, via the vision of oppression and technology's convergence as 1984.

This isn't a book, more than it is, I guess, a pamphlet. Nonetheless, it's worth the small fee to read. Because what Orwell had to say, about how language can be abused in the purpose of control in the first half of the last century, is equally valid today. What's also interesting, by virtue of time-passed, is how much of what he spoke of - here in this essay Politics & The English Language -- has quietly become, through the ubiquity of 24-hour media, nefariously commonplace.

If you like me found the supplementary essay on Newspeak at the back of 1984 to be as compelling than the main work itself, then Politics & The English Language is the root, the same notions represented, but as fact.

He's also a fantastic writer, so it's a joy to read... even if you will come away checking yourself for, unavoidable bad habits - tellingly, given the nature of Orwell's argument about how bad habits of language can create vicious circles of ignorance -- picked up, sadly, from politicians and, no less ignorantly, by everyday journalists.
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