Orwell and English

 
“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.”

George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm are certainly the best known of his works. Both are dystopian satires on the evil of collectivism, and, as psychologist/scholar Erich Fromm stated in his afterword to the first, a warnings to us. Orwell in addition penned many other works, mostly non-fiction and essays. One of those essays is especially pertinent to recent events and trends.

“Politics and the English Language” was written in 1937 amid the rise of totalitarian or states in Russia, Germany, and Italy, the Spanish Civil War, and leftist agitation in Orwell’s Britain. This essay is useful for any writer for its analysis and advice on what makes for good writing. In particular, Orwell warns that over-used metaphors, overstatements, and euphemisms distract and obfuscate meaning. More to his overall point, he says “[i]f you simply your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. . . and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

I an not entirely convinced of the last phrase’s accuracy. In my experience, true believers are impossible to dissuade, even by themselves.

The penultimate paragraph of “Politics and the English Language” contains six rules worth considering by anyone who wants to express their thoughts clearly. I list them here (with comments).

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. (The Dimwit’s Dictionary contains many of the “moribund metaphors” we hear and read often.)

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do. (Did I violate this rule or a corollary of it? An alternative would have been “next to last.”)

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. (“What do you read , my lord?” “Words, words, words.”)

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active. (The passive voice is a safe haven for rogues.)

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. (Exceptions are those that have become English words through usage.)

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (Remember, this is just a guide.)

I would add Mark Twain’s observation that every time you are tempted to use the word “very” —  don’t.

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