George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" is an essay on the importance of clarity and concise language and how those elements affect political writing. The first portion of this essay reasons that modern language is in decline, mainly because it is overly complicated without any legitimate purpose. This kind of language, overly fraught with large words without conveying significant meaning, is exceptionally susceptible to being used in propaganda.
Orwell believes that this type of speech is inherently insincere, and that is why it is so useful as propaganda. He analyzes five pieces of text to show how they utilize this overly complicated, insincere writing to achieve their purpose. He selects works by Harold Laski, Lancelot Hogben, and Paul Goodman, as well as a communist pamphlet and a reader's letter in Tribune. All of these pieces of writing show attempts to deceive and mislead, and, he claims, they are full of swindle.
One of the most interesting actions he takes in this essay is to translate a passage from the Biblical text of Ecclesiastes. Known for its poignancy and illustrative metaphor, he reduces the Ecclesiastical passage to a baffling convolution of words that seems to barely mean the same thing as the original. By adding in larger, more flexible words and removing all the imagery, he removes all the clarity from the work and makes it much harder to understand, all under the guise of updating the language.
In the end, he lays out a methodology to prevent writers from using obfuscating language and to ensure clarity in writing so that words can't be twisted. His steps are as follows:
- Never use an overly common metaphor
- Never use a long word where a short one will do
- If it's possible to remove a word, do so
- Always use active voice where possible
- Never use a foreign word or jargon if you can explain it in simple English terms
- Break any of the above rules if following them will make the writing "barbarous"
“Politics and the English Language,” though written in 1946, remains timely for modern students of language. In this essay, Orwell argues that the English language becomes “ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” To illustrate his point, Orwell cites writing from two professors, a Communist pamphlet, an essay on psychology in Politics, and a letter in the Tribune. All these examples, Orwell argues, have two common faults: staleness of imagery and lack of precision. In his follow-up analysis, he discusses general characteristics of bad writing, including pretentious diction and meaningless words. His purpose in the analysis is to show “the special connection between politics and the debasement of language.”
Orwell maintains that, in his time, political speech and writing are “largely the defence of the indefensible.” That is, the actions of ruthless politicians can be defended, but only by brutal arguments that “do not square with the professed aims of political parties.” He gives examples of the British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, and the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan. In order to talk about such atrocities, Orwell contends, one has to use political language that consists “largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Orwell translates for his readers the real meanings of such terms as “pacification,” “transfer of population,” “rectification of frontiers,” and “elimination of unreliable elements.” He concludes: “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.”
(The entire section is 905 words.)