Politics and the English Language Summary
George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” was published in 1946 in the literary magazine Horizon. Though modern considerations of Orwell more often focus on his novels—especially Animal Farm and 1984—his contemporaries knew him better as an essayist and literary critic. “Politics and the English Language” is regarded as one of his most influential works of criticism for its analysis of the vague and overly complicated rhetoric that suffused the post-World War II political landscape. Orwell’s oeuvre focuses heavily on the dangers posed by authoritarianism, and in “Politics” he expresses the belief that language manipulation is a powerful tool in the arsenal of tyranny. Using examples pulled from other contemporary works and speeches, Orwell demonstrates the ways in which imprecise language obscures meaning—both intentionally and unintentionally—and offers solutions for writing more sincere and straightforward prose.
The first portion of “Politics and the English Language” reasons that modern language is in decline because it is overly and pointlessly complicated. This kind of language, fraught with large words but lacking meaning, is susceptible to being used in propaganda. Orwell argues against the introduction of foreign words into the English lexicon, claiming that they only serve to complicate and obfuscate meaning. Latin- and Greek-derived terms are, according to Orwell, a crutch that allows scientists and politicians to sound more intelligent and “grand” while diluting the precision of their language.
Orwell believes that modern English speech is becoming increasingly insincere and therefore more useful as propaganda. He analyzes five pieces of text to show how their authors use over-complicated and vague writing to achieve their purposes. He selects works by Harold Laski, Lancelot Hogben, and Paul Goodman, as well as a communist pamphlet and a reader’s letter from Tribune. All of these pieces of writing are, according to Orwell, at best misleading and at worst actively deceptive. Politicians have sanitized inexcusable acts—such as “the continuance of British rule in India” or “the dropping of atom bombs on Japan”—through a combination of “stale imagery,” unnecessarily complicated diction, and words that have been abstracted to the point of meaninglessness.
To further illustrate his point, Orwell attempts to translate a number of statements into “modern English.” The bombing of defenseless civilian towns is called “pacification,” the theft of farmland from its inhabitants is called a “transfer of population,” and the imprisonment or execution of political detractors is called the “elimination of unreliable elements.” This sanitized and highly euphemistic style of writing allows politicians and public figures to control public perception more effectively. Bland, repetitious phrases and slogans replace meaningful commentary, leading to a blinkered public that is desensitized to atrocity.
Orwell encourages readers to think more critically about how language is used. He reminds them that a dedicated effort can eradicate the sort of “bad writing” he has identified. In his view, “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” If people viewed language as a means of conveying meaning rather than obscuring it, their prose would instantly improve. Since the English lexicon has already been “corrupted,” Orwell lays out a methodology to help writers avoid insincerity and vagueness. His steps are as follows:
- Never use an overly common metaphor.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it's possible to remove a word, do so.
- Always use the active voice where possible.
- Never use a foreign word or jargon if you can explain it in simple English terms.
- Break any of the above rules if following them will make the writing “barbarous.”
As a final note, Orwell concedes that he has probably broken all of the above rules at some point in...
(The entire section is 1,214 words.)