Politics and the English Language Themes
The main themes in "Politics and the English Language" are the dangers of propaganda, the importance of clarity, and the risks and merits of linguistic innovation.
- The dangers of propaganda: Orwell warns of the ways governments and other agencies harness language to convey a skewed depiction of reality.
- The importance of clarity: The essay emphasizes the benefits of using clear, simple language whenever possible.
- The risks and merits of linguistic innovation: Although Orwell favors common phrases in most cases, he argues that innovation is warranted when it comes to devising fresh metaphors and images.
Last Updated November 3, 2023.
The Dangers of Propaganda
“Politics and the English Language” is a critical look at the ways in which language can be manipulated to shape how information is received. In Orwell’s view, modern English often suffers from a lack of clarity and sincerity. Politicians in particular use abstract and overly complex language to obscure the meaning of their statements. Orwell asserts that these obfuscations are intentional, often meant to sanitize “indefensible acts,” such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the Soviet purges. Propaganda takes harsh and oftentimes objectionable truths and makes them more palatable, allowing politicians to quite literally get away with murder.
In addition to the “barbarity” of the deception being perpetrated, Orwell highlights the impact of modern political rhetoric on society’s critical thinking skills. Rather than remaining vigilant against totalitarianism and critical of government action, citizens instead regurgitate the nationalistic slogans and familiar rhetoric espoused by political leaders. In doing so, they contribute, willingly or unwillingly, to the disintegration of language and “anaesthetize” their own minds. Orwell reminds readers that vague phrases are a “continuous temptation” and that over time, the ability to communicate effectively will break down entirely unless one remains “constantly on guard.”
The Importance of Clarity
Orwell insists that the best way to reintroduce conciseness and clarity into English writing and speech is to remain “on guard” against using convoluted phrases when simpler words will suffice. Jargon, foreign phrases, and archaic metaphors are unnecessary and tend to hinder understanding. In the worst of cases, they can be used to intentionally obscure or misrepresent meaning. Politicians are particularly guilty of this sort of obfuscation, as they rely on sanitized, familiar phrases and slogans in order “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”
Orwell further asserts that there is a greater depth of beauty and meaning in straightforward, vivid language. His primary example of this principle is his attempted “translation” of Ecclesiastes 9:11. The original passage reads:
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.
By contrast, Orwell’s rewrite of the passage to resemble modern English reads:
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.
Though Orwell is intentionally convoluting the passage, he asserts that all of his changes are based on things he has heard or read from modern prosaists. The essence of modern writing is, in Orwell’s opinion, a lack of sincerity and imagery. Since politicians are tasked with defending atrocities to the general public, they must shy away from vivid images in favor of euphemisms and empty phrases, just as Orwell exemplifies in his translation. The unnecessarily complex language, replete with foreign words, aids in this obfuscation effort by making the language less accessible. Rather than eliciting immediate understanding, overly complex language forces audiences to translate, reducing overall comprehension and engagement.
The Risks and Merits of Linguistic Innovation
Orwell describes his remedies for “bad writing” as a “defence of the English language.” In his view, the recent trends of using foreign-derived words, scientific jargon, and generally “pretentious diction” constitute a corruption of English’s traditional Anglo-Saxon roots. He asserts that foreign-derived words are almost wholly unnecessary and that using them indicates the writer’s desire to sound “grander” or “more scientific.” He takes...
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particular issue with the use of latinate prefixes and affixes to create new words, such as “impermissible” or “non-fragmentary.” His dislike of this tactic ties in with his belief that speaking in negatives obfuscates meaning. By defining something by what it is not—as in the case of words like “non-fragmentary”—the precise meaning is lost amid “slovenliness and vagueness.”
Though Orwell criticizes what he views as the corruption of modern English rhetoric, he also notes that linguistic evolution does have benefits. Specifically, he argues for the importance of excising outdated metaphors and colloquialisms from modern usage, especially those that have been abstracted to the point of meaninglesness. As evidence, Orwell notes several clichéd phrases that are still used despite having little or no contemporary resonance.
For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.
From Orwell’s perspective, metaphors are meant to evoke an image that offers deeper insight into what is being said. “Tired” and “dead” metaphors, which call on images far-removed from the lived experiences of contemporary audiences, are lazy and uncreative. Due to their commonality, such metaphors have, in effect, become flowery substitutes for simpler words. Instead, Orwell advocates for the creation of new, more innovative metaphors that call on images relevant to the intended audience.