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Politics and the English Language

by George Orwell

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

Orwell and Anti-Authoritarianism

Much of Orwell’s literary oeuvre focuses on the dangers of authoritarian government. Orwell was politically active throughout his life and identified as a democratic socialist, valuing a liberal government supported by independent local and community organizations. His anxieties about totalitarianism were cemented during his service in the Spanish Civil War and his witnessing of Francisco Franco’s militant rise to power. These fears were only amplified as Hitler and Stalin rose to international prominence and World War II began. Orwell viewed the war as less of a political battleground and more of a moral one: Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s countless atrocities were not distant horrors to be fodderized by the media in a bid to inspire nationalistic fervor; instead, they were real, pressing threats to freedom and democratic institutions.

Orwell’s ire was also not reserved solely for Britain’s political enemies: he deplored the irresponsible and divisive language employed by all sectors of the political spectrum. He wrote his two best-known works—Animal Farm and 1984—as direct reactions to the rhetorical climate that arose during World War II. “Politics and the English Language” is essentially a nonfiction treatment of one of the central ideas Orwell’s fiction explores: language has the power to shape thought, so by manipulating language, politicians can manipulate society. Though Orwell stood as an enemy of authoritarian dictatorship, he also recognized that even ostensibly democratic countries were capable of committing indefensible acts. In the end, the only way to effectively resist fascism and totalitarianism is to inspire a politically vigilant and intellectually discerning public.

Linguistic Purism 

Debates surrounding the linguistic purity of the English language began in earnest during the transition from Middle English to Early Modern English in the sixteenth century. With the invention of the printing press, literacy soared. However, as writers attempted to produce definitive translations of classic works and explore new terrain in rapidly evolving scientific fields, they found that the existing English vocabulary contained a number of gaps. Two schools of thought arose as scholars struggled to fill these gaps: one side believed that new words should be constructed from English’s existing Anglo-Saxon roots, whereas the other preferred to borrow existing words from classical Latin and Greek. These borrowed words, often called inkhorn terms, were viewed as overly pretentious because they required a background in Latin to be easily understood—something that few people outside of academia possessed.

Though most debates surrounding linguistic purism had died out by Orwell’s time, his essay evokes several of the central beliefs of linguistic purists: a preference for Saxonic words over foreign and Latinate ones, a belief that simplicity and clarity are the hallmarks of good writing, and a disdain for overused or culturally inapplicable metaphors.

Form and Style

Orwell dreaded propaganda and writing that lacked sincerity. In “Politics and the English Language,” he writes about how modern speech has convoluted expression and made language malleable to the point of misinterpretation. At the end of the essay, he establishes six guidelines for helping to remedy this corruption of the language. Though he admits to breaking his own rules and disclaims that such exceptions are sometimes necessary in order to avoid “barbarity,” his own prose style is nonetheless clear, concise, and punctuated only by timely, specifically tailored metaphors. Despite the simplicity of the writing, however, the essay maintains an elevated and scholarly tone, highlighting the viability of Orwell’s rules even in academic writing.

Orwell’s diction indicates a preference for simple words, and he writes in short, digestible sentences. His use of figurative language is limited, and each image evoked is designed to guide readers’ understanding of his message. For instance, he compares English speakers to people who have failed at life and turn to alcohol for comfort but, in turning to drink, only compound their failures. The figurative language is grounded in a specific image of alcoholism that was salient to trauma-stricken post-war Europe, and it effectively demonstrates Orwell’s concept of language degradation as cyclical: language begins to decay when people manipulate it in order to express “foolish” thoughts, and the newfound “slovenliness” of the language only encourages further decay.

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