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Politics and the English Language

by George Orwell

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Choose one point from Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” with which you agree and one point with which you disagree. Include reasons for your arguments.

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I think Orwell is at his most insightful and profound when he discusses the manipulation of language by politics and the very real implications of this problem. As he argues, language itself serves as a tool for the manipulation of public opinion. The specific words people use in describing a...

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political option will often impact how people perceive that political option. Particularly striking and vivid is his discussion of euphemisms and the ways in which politicians can employ the strategic choice of words to deaden traumatic and deeply unpleasant political realities for public consumption. I'm confident Orwell's same insight holds true for modern political speech in the present, just as it did in Orwell's own time.

As far as his thesis about the deterioration of the English language is concerned, on this point I think he is on shakier ground. For one thing, even if you accepted Orwell's criticisms of his contemporaries as valid, it is worth remembering that, speaking historically, most literature is ultimately forgotten, and only a small number of works actually survive in public consciousness. With that in mind, it's worth asking whether this vision of deterioration might itself be based in an idealization of the past which might not reflect its reality.

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George Orwell makes several points in his essayPolitics and the English Language” to further his argument that words are often intentionally used to obscure the underlying meaning of a statement, particularly when it comes to politics. He notes that writers can fight the temptation to be slovenly when writing and specifically points to what he calls "dying metaphors."

He says that a new metaphor can evoke a visual image. In addition, there are metaphors that he calls "dead" because they have been in use for a long time and have therefore "in effect reverted to being" ordinary words. However, Orwell says these dead metaphors "can still evoke an image," but "worn-out metaphors" that are also old "have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”

It seems that here Orwell is taking too many liberties to make his point. He looks at newly-coined metaphors and says that they evoke an image. So far, his thinking makes sense. He then looks at the other end of the spectrum with metaphors that have been in use for as long as a writer can remember. He calls these “dead” metaphors. However, he then says that the dead metaphor can still “generally be used without loss of vividness,” but the “worn-out metaphors” that are neither new nor dead have “lost all evocative power.” People use them because they are too lazy to invent new phrases and metaphors for themselves.

Orwell is stretching a point here because there is little distinction, it seems, between what he calls dead and worn-out metaphors. Who is going to decide which metaphors are dead and which merely worn out? Is it Orwell? It is true that people often forget the origin of a metaphor that has been in use for a long time. However, the meaning of the metaphor is still recognizable, and although it might save the writer the trouble of evoking a new image, the worn-out metaphor still conjures up certain ideas for the reader that can help the writer advance an argument.

For instance, he gives “stand shoulder to shoulder with” as an example. The expression originated in the late 1500s and referred to military troops marching in close formation. While the reader and the writer equally might not know its derivation, both likely understand that it means to remain united or provide complete support to another person during a difficult time.

Orwell also points to meaningless words and notes that “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.” This argument makes sense, as it seems that writers are often using unnecessarily long words and phrases to describe things and actually end up obscuring the underlying meaning of their message. Perhaps the writer is being pretentious.

Unfortunately, Orwell goes too far with this argument. He specifically cites “Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism,” and says they “are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader.”

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The central point of Orwell's essay with which I agree is that political language is often designed to make lies sound truthful. Though "Politics and the English Language" was written three quarters of a century ago, much of what has been happening in our own time illustrates that Orwell's point is still valid. It relates to the intention of many in government to erode the concept of objective reality and to make the population believe that truth is not what is objectively observed and remembered, but rather, whatever the "leader" says is true. In just the past few months, we have heard terms such as "alternative facts" and statements such as "Truth is not truth." These are a simplified form of the confusing and elaborately misleading examples of the political writings of his time that Orwell cited.

On the other hand, I disagree with his assertion that the tendency of modern English is towards "Latinization." Even in Orwell's time, though political writing was becoming increasingly deceptive and even overtly nonsensical, English in general was simpler in wording and style than it had been in the nineteenth-century. If we compare any sample of Victorian prose with that of the post-1920 world, it's obvious that the older style used more words with Latin (and Greek) roots and thus had a loftier, more formal sound than more recent writing. The issue of "Latinization" has little to do with political deceptiveness in writing, in my view.

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