‘Orwell’s Warning’

“Reading Orwell’s views on language, it’s no wonder that the perversion of language for nefarious political ends features so prominently in Orwell’s dual masterpieces, ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Four’. In Orwell’s imagined totalitarian worlds, tyrants control thought by debasing language: i.e., “the Party” creates “Newspeak” (in ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Four’) to make “thoughtcrime” impossible by eradicating the vocabulary of dissent. Without the words for freedom (he argues), the idea of it ceases to exist, and people will no longer yearn for it…

“Most anyone who graduated from an American high school recalls

War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength”.

“It’s usually read as a Cold-War warning against Soviet-style socialism and its attendant mind-bending fabrications. But we’ve forgotten Orwell’s broader message:
demagogues erode democracy insidiously and incrementally, camouflaging their designs and outright lies with lofty abstractions, meaningless slogans oft-repeated, and a euphemistic inexactness of language.

“Hitler had just overrun Poland when he ended his speech to the Reichstag {Oct. 6, 1939} with the following:

I can thank God at this moment that he has so wonderfully blessed us in our first, difficult struggle for our rights. I implore Him that we and all other nations may find the right path, so that not only the German Volk but all Europe may once more rejoice in the blessing of peace”.

–‘The Tyranny of Language’,
January 10, 2011


Animal Farm’:



George Orwell:

“Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.

“Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light…

“Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.

“It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

“The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers…

“The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

“…modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.

“The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say “In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption” 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.

“When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like ‘a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind‘ or ‘a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent‘ will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump.

“By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash…it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words, he is not really thinking

People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning — they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another — but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

“And he will probably ask himself two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

“But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need, they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning, even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

In our time, it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line“. Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, ‘White papers’ and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech.

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases…one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

“And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…
Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. 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…

“The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. 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…

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like ‘a not unjustifiable assumption‘, ‘leaves much to be desired‘, ‘would serve no good purpose‘, ‘a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind‘, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow…

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.

“When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it.

“When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.

“Probably, it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward, one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch ’round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally…

“I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing — and not for concealing or preventing — thought…
If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects and when you make a stupid remark, its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

–‘Politics and the English Language’,
George Orwell, (1946)



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