Ethics & Public Policy Center

Politics and the English Language: An Introduction

Published in The Trinity Forum: Politics and the English Language on October 4, 2016



Below is an excerpt from EPPC Senior Fellow Peter Wehner’s introduction to a forthcoming edition of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” to be published soon by The Trinity Forum. Readers may order a copy of the Trinity Forum reading here


Orwell’s Most Enduring Essay

“Politics and the English Language,” published in 1946 in the journal Horizon, is considered by many to be Orwell’s most famous and enduring essay. In it, he argues the English language has become degraded, “ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Language, and particularly political language, he argued, is not just a manifestation of our decline but also an instrument in it.

Orwell examines five passages — two from professors (Harold Laski and Lancelot Hogben), one from a Communist pamphlet, one from an essay on psychology, and one from a letter to a newspaper — not because they are particularly bad but because they are representative, illustrating “various of the mental vices from which we now suffer.” The common qualities, he writes, are staleness of imagery and lack of precision. Orwell offers a “catalogue of swindles and perversions” that get in the way of modern prose: “dying metaphors,” “operators or verbal false limbs,” “pretentious diction,” and “meaningless words.” He then offers the following six rules as a corrective:

  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.

There are exceptions to these rules, and many of the words (like ameliorate, clandestine, eliminate) and phrases (like acid test, radical transformation, cul de sac) Orwell dislikes or even detests strike me as perfectly fine and often appropriate. As Geoffrey Pullum, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, put it: “This miscellany of locutions has nothing in common other than that Orwell hated them and (without quantitative support) thought that they were overly frequent in 1946.” Even so incisive a writer as Orwell had his literary quirks.

As a general matter, however, Orwell offers sound advice. The important thing to understand is that what Orwell is aiming for is clarity. He wanted language to be an instrument to express and sharpen, rather than conceal or prevent thought, and he was quite right about that.

Orwell’s thoughts on political language merit particular attention. “In our time,” he wrote, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Political language consists largely of “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” And this: “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.” This can’t be done in a moment, according to Orwell, but we can change our habits and send some worn-out and useless phrase “into the dustbin where it belongs.”

One senses in Orwell his frustration with the state of much political speech because it often degrades what he considers precious — clear, precise, and appropriate language. He understood the enormous stakes in politics and believed political speech often disfigures reality and the true nature of things. If we get our politics wrong, Orwell knew, it can lead to misery and suffering, to gulags and concentration camps. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism,” he said, “and for Democratic Socialism as I understand it.”

Political language matters because politics matter. The corruption of one leads to the corruption of the other.

[…]

In the Beginning Was the Word

The care of words is something that should concern all of us, perhaps particularly those of the Christian faith. After all, in the gospel of John we are told, “In the beginning was the Word.”

In reflecting on this sentence in 1978, Malcolm Muggeridge, a friend of Orwell’s — Muggeridge arranged Orwell’s memorial service — said:

one of the things that appalls me and saddens me about the world today is the condition of words. Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically than rivers and land and sea. There has been a terrible destruction of words in our time… Jesus himself said that heaven and earth would pass away, but his words would not pass away. I believe that is true, and I think that our most sacred treasure today is the word of the Gospels, which we should guard at all costs, for it is most precious.

Muggeridge then told this story:

I was in Darwin, Australia, and I got a message that there was a man in a hospital there who had listened to something that I had said on the radio, and had expressed a wish that I should visit him. So I did. He turned out to be an old, wizened man who had lived in the bush and who was blind. I can never forget him. Wanting to think of something to say to him that would light him up and cheer him up, I suddenly remembered a phrase in the play King Lear. You may remember that Gloucester, commiserating with Lear on being blind, uses five words. I remembered them then: “I stumbled when I saw.” I said this to the old man in the Darwin hospital. He was utterly enchanted. He got the point immediately. As I left the ward, I could hear him saying them over and over to himself: “I stumbled when I saw.” That is what I mean by the marvelous power of words when they are used with true force in their true meaning.

Unlike Muggeridge, George Orwell never became a Christian; it was politics, not faith, that occupied Orwell’s energy and attention and gave urgency to his work. But he was a man who believed in a moral code, in concepts like justice, freedom, and objective truth, and he worked valiantly throughout his life to articulate and further them. “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command,” Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four. His heroes were those who defied the lies of an oppressive power, who discerned, spoke, and held to what was true:

[Winston Smith’s] heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

While Orwell didn’t locate the basis of his beliefs in the enduring truth of the Christian faith, he did concede that Christian thinkers were right to believe “that if our civilisation does not regenerate itself, it is likely to perish — and they may be right in adding that, at least in Europe, its moral code must be based on Christian principles.”

Orwell believed throughout his life that language was a means to see the truth and to tell the truth. But for those of us of the Christian faith, words show not only what is true, but are the primary vehicle for knowing the Author of all Truth; the “all else follows” eventually leads us to Christ, and the Cross, and what follows from the Cross.

In the gospel of John we are told that Jesus said to those who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

George Orwell’s affection and allegiance were ultimately found in places other than the person of Jesus. But the concept of there being (to paraphrase the 17th century English Bishop Joseph Hall) a silken string running through the pearl chain of words, truth, and freedom is one I like to think that Orwell would have appreciated.

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations and is a New York Times contributing opinion writer.

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