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Politics and the English Language

by George Orwell

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Discussion Topic

George Orwell's insights on the relationship between language, literature, and communication in "Politics and the English Language."

Summary:

In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell argues that unclear language and poor writing can corrupt thought and communication. He believes that political language is often designed to mislead and manipulate, and that writers must strive for clarity and precision to combat these effects. Orwell emphasizes that clear language fosters clear thinking and honest communication.

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What is the brief concept of George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"?

In a brief summary, George Orwell's objective in "Politics in the English Language" is twofold. First, he intends to illustrate and prove that the academic and political English language of his day was "in a bad way." His contention is that meaning was being either intentionally or inadvertently obscured. In the case of politics, the obscuring of meaning was intentional. In academia, it was seemingly inadvertent.

One of his central points of persuasion to gain credibility for his argument is that cause produces effects that themselves also become cause of similar effects. This is relevant to a discussion of language because of the theory that language is beyond control and that things just happen to language along the way.

Orwell's major concern, as reflected by his title, is how this obscuring of meaning is used in political situations. A precise example of his concern and point regarding what he describes as "The inflated style [that] itself is a kind of euphemism" is as follows:

Orwell: Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."

Orwell offers concrete steps for avoiding inflated stylistic euphemisms. The first and most important is to visualize your meaning until you have it clearly in your mind and then select words that best describe what you visualize. He gives a list of rules to use to help steer away from the vague and euphemistic toward the specific and concrete, which is a path illustrated by his paraphrase that follows:

Orwell: Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Orwell: Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Orwell's rules for clarity are:

1.  Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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What does George Orwell suggest about the role of language in literature in his essay "Politics and the English Language"?

In his famous essayPolitics and the English Language,” George Orwell argues that writing should be clear, simple, and straightforward. At one point he even offers writers six pieces of specific advice:

1.   Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to

seeing in print.

2.   Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.   If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.   Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.   Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of

an everyday English equivalent.

6.   Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The modern author who most obviously seems to exemplify these traits of literary style is Ernest Hemingway.  Consider, for instance, the opening paragraph of Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants”:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.

This paragraph exemplifies practically every single aspect of Orwell’s advice (although Hemingway’s story predated Orwell’s essay). Most of the words are short; none of the words is unnecessary; no familiar similes or metaphors appear; no foreign phrases are used. Even the “there was” clauses are not examples of passive voice; they are examples of something called “active-voice existential” clauses.  The phrasing here is completely lucid, but to say this is not to imply that it lacks symbolic resonance. In fact, practically every detail in this paragraph is symbolic in some sense. The fact that the man and woman are sitting between two lines of rails symbolizes the decision they will have to make: they will have to choose, both literally and metaphorically, the direction in which they wish to go. The heat contributes to the tension of their relationship. The fact that the train stops for only two minutes symbolizes the time pressures they are under. And so on.

Hemingway thus writes here in a way of which Orwell would almost surely approve.

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What is Orwell's major argument in "Politics and the English Language" regarding the importance of language in communication?

In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell is positively scathing about the way in which the English language has been increasingly used and abused to serve certain sectional interests in society. He is particularly critical of how the language of politics has become debased, distorted by ideology and self-interest to the extent that a dangerous chasm between language and reality has opened up.

Political rhetoric comes in for some especially harsh criticism. Thanks to their shameless misuse of the English language, politicians can hide the truth, making lies sound truthful and murder respectable. As far as possible, argues Orwell, language should be used to convey truth and meaning. To that end, it should strive for clarity and conciseness.

But for Orwell, it's becoming increasingly the case that language is being used in the opposite way and for the exact opposite effect. Politicians resort to vague, windy generalizations in order to conceal the fundamental vacuity of their ideas and positions. In doing so, they create an alternative reality in which black is white, and vice versa.

This is precisely what Squealer, Napoleon's propagandist-in-chief, does in Animal Farm. It's also becoming more and more prevalent in contemporary politics, in which certain politicians cynically distort the truth by emptying language of its meaning and being deliberately vague and evasive in what they say to the press and to the people.

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What is Orwell's major argument in "Politics and the English Language" regarding the importance of language in communication?

Orwell argues in this essay that thoughtless and inaccurate use of language can lead to unwelcome political and economic outcomes—and also, in turn, that bad political and economic situations can lead to the misuse of language to cover up the problems. As he illustrates more fully in 1984 and Animal Farm, letting absurd statements go unquestioned allows unscrupulous groups to tighten their grip on power. As he asks in this essay, how can a person oppose fascism if nobody ever properly explains what the word means? He argues that it is important for concrete reasons that impact our to day-to-day life that we both write clearly and demand clear writing from others. This is not merely an academic exercise meant to please English teachers, but a way to keep tyranny at bay and democracy alive.

In much of the essay, Orwell illustrates and outlines what clear language consists of. For instance, he says the following:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Orwell notes too that insincere language is a problem, stating, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." He says we should be careful to say what we mean and mean what we say.

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What is Orwell's major argument in "Politics and the English Language" regarding the importance of language in communication?

Orwell makes the argument that people have to pay attention to language because the sloppy or inaccurate use of language can lead to dangerous and oppressive political situations. He gives examples of words that have become meaningless from overuse; an example is the word "freedom." He provides the sentence "The Soviet press is the freest in the world" as an example. The vagueness of the language allows people to express misleading statements. Sloppy language does not just lead to inaccuracy and vagueness in everyday language; instead, this type of language also leads to political oppression and tyranny of all kinds. For example, Orwell cites the example of the word "pacification" to refer to the relentless bombing of peasants and their relocation to other areas. "Pacification" is a word that means peace, but the word is used menacingly and inaccurately to refer to death and relocation.

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What is Orwell's major argument in "Politics and the English Language" regarding the importance of language in communication?

George Orwell's major argument in Politics and the English Language, is that the English language has become worse as time has gone on. This article was written in 1946 and George Orwell has very strong opinions on this matter.

He states "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 thought." He goes on to say "Written English is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble." What does all of this mean?

Orwell believed that politicians were using these forms of bad language to trick the public into believing their way of thinking. He believed that politicians disguised their intentions behind euphemisms and convoluted phrasing. What he was trying to say was that the decline of the English language, was now allowing politicians to use terms that would capture their intended audience, thus leading to more votes.

Orwell gave six remedies for this problem:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Orwell was trying to teach everyone that the simpler and more honest your words are the better the politics would be.

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