Friday, 9 July 2010

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell (Eric Bell)

Politics and the English Language 
George Orwell

 Politics and the English Language"  is regarded by many as Orwell’s most important work on style.   This makes it essential reading for the author who wants to write powerful prose—in any language.  The style of political prose that  George Orwell criticised as "ugly and inaccurate" is even more prevalent today, in 2010,  and indeed is regarded as the sophistication by many

Five Examples

(1) I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become,  out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien (sic) to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.
PROFESSOR HAROLD LASKI (Essay in Freedom of Expression)
(2) Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with or tolerate or put at a loss or bewilder.
(3) On the one side we have the free personality; by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?
ESSAY ON PSYCHOLOGY in Politics (New York)
(4) All the "best people" from the gentlemen's clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror of the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoisie to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.
(5) If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may lee sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion's roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream--as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes, or rather ears, of the world by the effete languorsof Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as "standard English." When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o'clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish,  inflated, inhibited, school-ma'am-ish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens.

LETTER IN Tribune.

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.

Political prose is designed "to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."   Its primary characteristics vagueness and meaninglessness intended to hide the truth. This unclear language is this then imitated by those who, far from trying to hide the truth, merely wished to speak and write as their political leaders did,  


Thought corrupts Language

Oppressive ideology  can only be defended by vague unclear language:
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense 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 political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
[...]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.”

However, even more insidious is Orwell’s next observation:

Language corrupts Thought

Orwell says “the temptation to use meaningless or hackneyed phrases was like a "packet of aspirins always at one's elbow." In particular, they are always ready to form the writer's thoughts for him to save him the bother of thinking, or writing, clearly.”  To see this for yourself, consider how easy it is to use jargon, stock phrases, and large words to talk at great length, with little thought, or content.

Propagation of vague meaningless language

Orwell said that this decline was self-perpetuating. Vague language was spreading by imitation, reinforcing the effect of its original political and economic causes. This obscured mental laziness, which in turn made it easier to get away with not bothering to think properly.
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks [...] English [...] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”


To give an example of what he is describing, Orwell "translates" Ecclesiastes 9:11—
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.
—into "modern English of the worst sort,"
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.

So what can one do?

 Six Simple Rules

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.
but finally,
6.    Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in these five specimens at the beginning of this article.

I hope I have not broken too many of these rules.   However, even Orwell conceded he has no doubt violated some of them in this very essay

Now have some fun and find a political speech and take Orwell’s red pen to it!  Or try this blog post, or one of your own.

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