Careless writing; the deceiver's cloak,
This review is from: Politics and the English Language (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
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Just as the war-time slogan "careless talk costs lives" highlighted the potential fatal consequences of careless gossip, so this essay underlines the power of lazy writing to deaden thought, to "make lies sound respectable and murder truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
Here Orwell is actually talking about 'political' writing, which he sees as synonymous with lazy and careless writing.
He lists the characteristics of such writing as composed of worn out metaphors, recycled images and phrases, overused Latin and scientific words, and 'not un-' constructions, e.g. lazy writing not unlike political writing. These are often cobbled together, Orwell claims, to construct sentences and paragraphs that have no original thought and that do the work of the writer, doing away with the effort of finding clear images or words that actually state what the writer means. The writer is often left with something that is mendacious nonsense, or just plain nonsense.
Amusingly, Orwell gives some passages at the start of his essay culled from various sources including prominent thinkers, pamphleteers and letter writers. They are indeed examples of pretentious hot air, and we have fun as Orwell deconstructs them. But the more sinister underlying message is that truth is often the victim when such writing is penned by the Political classes, as Orwell claims it often is, to prevent either them or us thinking too clearly, and making acceptable and palatable that which is monstrous and evil. He gives examples we will be familiar with today; 'pacification' for the firebombing of civilian targets, 'relocation' for the brutal exile of civilian populations, and so on.
These themes developed in the distortion of language in the Newspeak of 1984, and the deceptive political sloganeering and deceptions in Animal Farm. And how Orwell would have loathed and gone to town on the language of the Blair government in its justification of war, and the anesthetizing mush of the centre ground of current politics, and the language of austerity.
See? With the use of 'gone to town' I've done it myself, employing a lazy overused phrase to save me coming up with a more accurate one.
The argument does seem a bit overstretched, and there is a place for metaphor, and I think it is possible to use familiar metaphors and phrases in a way that serves good writing. But this remains a timely and bracing clarion call indeed.
This edition also includes Orwell's review of an unabridged translation of Mein Kampf in 1940. It is good to have it included, a gem. His argument that Hitler held power over the masses because, as well as starved and unemployed, they were also fed up with a consumer ethos that preached fulfilment through consumption, comfort and enjoyment, and craved something more instinctual and challenging, a creed of sacrifice for a greater cause, blood, and glory on the battlefield. In an age where the consumer culture is failing, leading to riots, and the rise of far right factions in Europe, this is chillingly relevant.