Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.
The overriding theme of “Politics and the English Language” is the importance of clear language, especially when it comes to the communication of political ideals. Orwell highlights the gap that often exists between what people mean and what they actually say. When writers resort to long words, clichés, and exhausted idioms, they’re often hiding what they really think. Like the cuttlefish who squirts ink at potential predators to avoid being eaten, those who use obfuscatory language are trying to avoid being pinned down by their opponents. The murkier one’s language, the harder it is to challenge what one says, making glibness and insincerity the order of the day.
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-stained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy, the appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved.
This is an especially acute danger in the world of politics, wherein tired slogans and clichés are often heard from public platforms. Orwell rebukes the penchant of so many political speakers to resort to well-worn phrases that they know will resonate with a particular audience. Orwell asserts that in actuality, such phrases are almost completely devoid of meaning.
In such cases it’s as if the “hack” orator is no longer a human being but an automaton, blandly repeating pre-programmed phrases that have been used so often that they no longer mean anything. Orwell’s suggestion is that clear language, and the clear thinking that underlies it, is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human. If people abandon it, as so many politicians do, then they abandon their humanity by extension.
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.
Political language of its very nature is irredeemable. It is always concerned with creating an alternative universe from which the truth has been expunged. Political discourse takes words, deprives them of their ordinary meanings, and distorts them for the sake of a specific ideology, be it conservatism, anarchism, socialism, or any other platform. Truth is malleable and interpretable, and language is the tool by which the public perception of facts can be shaped. In Orwell’s view, what matters most in politics is the relevant ideology and its practical objectives. Words, like the masses of contemporary society, serve the interests of the political elite.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. . . . Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
This divorce between truth and reality is dangerous, because it allows politicians to sanctify their “indefensible” actions with a veneer of respectability. By avoiding clear, evocative language, speakers can inspire nationalistic fervor without having to associate themselves with images of brutality, subterfuge, or oppression. Authoritarian dictators are particularly prone to such obfuscation. But, as Orwell demonstrates by his inclusion of American and British transgressions, this is a problem relevant to all societies, irrespective of their political systems.