Watch your Language

George Orwell is well known for his dystopian novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, as well as numerous other works of fiction and essays. One of the themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four was the totalitarian government’s invention of “Newspeak” to linguistically solidify control over the populace. He even added a postscript to explain the principles of Newspeak

Orwell explored the use of language and how it can be used to affect political thought in a 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” This essay not only accomplishes that purpose, but also gives many tips on how to write well

“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. . . .

“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. 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. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin, where it belongs.”

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.

In addition to reading the entirety of Orwell’s fine essay, I commend the more recent Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Cliches, as well as Frank Luntz’s 2007 book Words that Work. A great reference work is Robert Hartwell Fiske’s The Dimwit’s Dictionary, which contains “5,000 Overused Words and Phrases and Alternatives to Them” categorized as “moribund metaphors, infantile phrases, wretched redundancies, torpid terms” etc, that pollute the wordscape. Some of my pet peeves are “social justice” (which is to justice as fast food is to food) and “the downtrodden” (who’s dong the treading?). Furthermore, the prevalence of euphemisms, as well as the use of the passive voice in political speech, enables speakers to orate for house without saying anything they can be held to.

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