In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible...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.

-- George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”

"Politics and the English Language" is a brilliant essay written by George Orwell in 1946. Orwell observes that our language is being egregiously misused, and argues that this has grave political repercussions. The sort of language that he has in his crosshairs is any overly florid and muddled prose; Orwell characterizes the style of writing in question as having both "staleness of imagery" and "lack of precision." This is a purposely broad category which catches many sorts of pleonastic drivel, from excessively jargon-filled academese to politically correct tripe. Orwell gives several examples of poor writing from contemporary sources, but the most illustrative example is a fictional one: he takes a sample of perfectly clear English from Ecclesiastes and "modernizes" it to frightening (and hilarious) effect. Here's the original passage:

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.

And Orwell's "modern" version:

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.

We've all written this way — well, maybe not all of us, but many of us have fallen into this trap, slapping together a pastiche of phrases we've heard before to gussy up our language, make ourselves sound more impressive, and in the process totally burying our meaning. Orwell: "It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don't have to hunt about for the words; you also don't have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious." We are lazily stringing together cliches and ready-made common phrases rather than actually doing the work of choosing the words that best express our ideas and thoughts. This leads to prose that is more convoluted and obscure, fitting the ideas underneath it like a poorly-made suit. Orwell points out four particular linguistic tricks that are commonly used in this sort of language:

These elements of obfuscation are certainly ugly, but Orwell's point is not just an aesthetic or semantic one. The more complete the divorce between language and meaning, the easier it is for politicians to say anything they like without actually saying anything at all. East Germany, perhaps the most complete police state the planet has ever seen, was called the German Democratic Republic. What meaning does the word “democracy” have in such a context? President Bush has used the word “freedom” as if it is synonymous with “absolute good.” I'm all for freedom, but that's not what the word means, and Bush uses it so often that it's become another political catchphrase, its definition becoming hazier each time it is said. This is the political equivalent of semantic saturation; these words are used by so many different persons in so many different contexts that their meaning is no longer clear. Worse, this is often the intention of the politicians in question, no matter where on the political spectrum they fall. Who wants to go on the record as being against democracy, or being soft on crime, or favoring the elimination of free speech? The solution is to purposely use definitions of words that are not commensurate with the implied definitions. In other words, the solution is to be intentionally vague about the meaning of the words you use, in order to dupe your audience. To keep the populace even more confused, smashing ready-made phrases together into a train wreck of a sentence is a beautiful way to keep the reality behind these sentences harder to see. If you are, for example, trying to justify repression of your political enemies, stay away from simple, clear language and ensure that your meaning is clouded by poorly formed clauses, overuse of the passive voice, tired metaphors, and all the other tricks mentioned above. Orwell gives the example of someone who is trying to defend Soviet-style political assassination:

He cannot say outright, 'I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so'. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
'While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.'

Orwell goes on to suggest several simple rules of composition that effectively prevent writing or speaking in this manner:

  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.

These rules look simple, but they are far more difficult to follow than you may expect. Writing in accordance with these rules takes work. It requires thought, care, and attention to meaning — as well it should, because that's what these rules were designed to ensure. George Orwell knew what he was doing, and the continued pertinence of this essay, 60 years later, is perhaps even more striking than that of, say, another work of his written around the same time. Read this essay. It will make you a better writer and a sharper thinker. It will also make you a little bit more cynical, but it's worth it. The sheer density of insight that is packed into this concise and lucid essay is astounding. I have not even scratched the surface here. I mean, I haven't even begun to fully unpack the conceptual underpinnings of the politico-semantic theory constructed by Orwell in this essay. I apologize. What it was which I intended to suggest, in the parlance of our times, so to speak, as it were, in a very real sense, in a not unreasonable tone of voice...

Ah crap. Well, I'm sure you know what I mean.

Orwell's essay can be found online in several places. The version with the best formatting is here:

Node the Awesome

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