I just read Politics and the English Language for the first time and I am struck by its relevancy to both the politics and language of today. The clichés Orwell sought to shame out of existence, and even some he thought had been “killed by the jeers of a few journalists,” are still alive and well (those last three words being a case in point (ditto)). He is quite right (oy) that repeating stock phrases takes alot of the work out of writing and, worse still, comes across as witty and clever. Hardly a news story goes by (oy again) without a play on some catch-phrase or other. In fact, I am finding that writing a single sentence without relying on “prefabricated phrases” is exceedingly difficult (I give up!). Orwell himself admits the difficulty of writing without imitation, but offers these helpful hints (OK, that one was on purpose).
He doesn’t spend quite as much time on bad language in politics, and in fact his two themes seem to have little on common other than their final verbal effects. As he later illustrated in 1984, political language generally consists in hiding true intentions with pleasant but vague language designed to win approval for policies and actions that would be condemned if described in plain language.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. 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.
Would George Bush (Jr.) have won (voting irregularities aside) the presidency by clearly stating he would murder tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, destroy infrastructure impoverishing millions more, and poison the environment causing generation after generation of birth defects and cancers, in order to secure American control of dwindling oil supplies? It’s not that the electorate wouldn’t approve of such a policy, it’s that they are aware it is immoral and would not want to be seen to be supporting it. In this essay Orwell does not seem to address the fact that it is also in the voter’s interest to be presented with euphemisms (today it’s “war on terrorism” and “liberation”) so that they may, with a clear conscience, vote in favour of the violence needed to maintain their power and wealth. It’s been a while since I read 1984 but I seem to recall that the majority of the citizens in that book were quite happy to hear the Newspeak and participate in the hellish collective enterprise. If I remember incorrectly and it wasn’t that way in the book, it certainly is that way now.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never us a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.