Politics and the English Language Characters
The main characters in "Politics and the English Language" are Harold Laski, Lancelot Hobgen, and Paul Goodman.
- Harold Laski is a British political and economic theorist with leftist leanings. Orwell cites Laski's writings as examples of vague, periphrastic prose.
- Lancelot Hobgen is a British statistician and linguist whose penchant for technical and idiomatic language Orwell criticizes.
- Paul Goodman is the author of a passage of psychological theory that Orwell cites as nonsensical.
Last Updated November 3, 2023.
As a work of criticism, Orwell’s essay does not have characters in the traditional narrative sense. However, it can be helpful to consider the authors of the five texts that Orwell calls upon to make his points.
Harold Laski was a British political and economic theorist for the Labor Party. He started out as a pluralist who believed in a centralized government supported by local community organizations. Later in his career, however, he became a Marxist activist and hinted that a violent revolution would be necessary to overthrow the government. Orwell uses an excerpt of Laski’s writing as an example of vagueness wrought by an abundance of negatives, which Orwell asserts make “nonsense” of the entire passage.
Lancelot Hobgen was a British medical statistician and linguist. He was known primarily for his staunchly anti-eugenics stance, and he was one of the first scientists to posit that nature and nurture both influenced a person. During World War II, Hobgen began developing a language called Interglossa. It was constructed using only 880 base words, which were derived from Greek and Latin as a concession to the number of technical and scientific words that had latinate roots. Interglossa was not meant to replace any individual language but rather facilitate communication across linguistic barriers for the purposes of scientific and political discourse. The passage that Orwell quotes is taken from Interglossa: A draft of an auxiliary for a democratic world order, the book in which Hobgen outlines the principles of Interglossa.
The passage Orwell criticizes is making an argument against the usage of idioms, as they require a specific context that non-native speakers often do not possess. Orwell takes issue with Hobgen’s dismissal of “everyday” phrases and idioms, which is somewhat contradictory in light of Orwell’s own dislike of many common metaphors.
Though Paul Goodman is not credited within Orwell’s essay, he is the author of the third passage. Paul Goodman was an American writer, therapist, and anarchist. The quote is drawn from a psychology essay that Goodman published in the New York–based literary and political journal Politics, titled “The Political Meaning of Some Recent Revisions of Freud.” Orwell asserts that the passage he quotes is “simply meaningless.”
The Authors of a Communist Pamphlet
Pamphlets, or short informal publications typically advocating for a specific agenda, were a common political tool in Orwell’s time. Orwell, who had a particular interest in the mechanisms and social impacts of propaganda, was an avid collector of pamphlets from across the political spectrum. The communist pamphlet Orwell cites in “Politics and the English Language” represents the broader genre of political publications that saturated Britain during the mid-twentieth century. In Orwell’s view, despite the pamphlet’s clarity of purpose, its vague, highly metaphorical diction obscures its meaning like “tea leaves blocking a sink.”
A Letter-Writer in Tribune
Tribune was a British political journal that embraced a variety of leftist influences, including pacifists, the British Labor Party, Marxists, and Stalinists. Orwell uses the letter as an example of writing that contains little by way of concrete meaning: the author of the letter uses colorful, highly figurative language—for example, “priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma’amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens!”—but relies more on a vague sentiment of solidarity with a cause than any rational or compelling arguments.
British, Soviet, and American Leaders
At the start of the essay, Orwell names three contemporary actions that he deems “indefensible”: British rule in India, Soviet purges, and the United States’ bombing of Japan. He further condemns the ways in which these actions have been represented to the public: the bombing of civilians becomes pacification, the driving of peasants from their villages becomes transfer of population, and mass imprisonment and executions become elimination of unreliable elements. British, Soviet, and American leaders, who orchestrated and ordered the aforementioned indefensible actions, are thus the indirect targets of Orwell’s treatise on the ills of politically motivated rhetoric.