A German teacher of mine was actually the first to recommend this essay to me, along with several books, and another essay by Mark Twain, the last of which was the only piece that had anything to do with German (I’m convinced he was a philosophy teacher masquerading as a German teacher because the philosophy department didn’t approve of his philosophy). The Mark Twain essay, “The Awful German Language” is amusing, and the books are philosophically insightful and thought-provoking, but it is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” that made the largest impact on me. It is among my most oft-cited pieces on language and writing, and its lessons and criticisms are as valid today as they were in 1946.
In his fourth paragraph Orwell asserts that “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 hen-house,” which succinctly conveys the central argument of the entire essay (take note, all you pedantic English teachers asserting that a thesis statement can only exist in the first paragraph). Once you read that sentence, there is no un-reading it: you will forever be cursed (or blessed) with a tendency to perceive precisely this tendency in every piece of writing you read and every conversation you have. You have likely done this on many occasions, especially in circumstances of live speech, for it serves as a mental shortcut. It is, as Orwell points out, paradoxically easier to speak in this fashion, despite requiring more words to say something in a less direct way.
I’ve written a lot of posts about language recently – “Communicating Clearly,” “Choosing Words,” “Fewer Words, Longer Books,” and “Definition, Connotation, and the Function of Language” to name a few – and they revolve around similar concepts to Orwell’s essay; the essay is, after all, what first prompted me to think seriously upon how language is deployed and the offshoot effects of that deployment. None of these are an argument that language ought to be static, and neither is Orwell’s essay. Instead, Orwell is advocating that we ensure that language continues to have meaning, and does not devolve into empty noises which we utter to each other in order to meet the appropriate requirements for interaction. It is a call for words like ‘epic’ and ‘awesome’ to be remanded to their true scopes, and not watered down by their application to unworthy nouns. As much as I like food, I don’t think that you can really put that breakfast you took more pictures of than bites on par with the adventures of Odysseus.
While it was the language parts which I recalled most, and which are most relevant to writing – every author would do well to bear in mind Orwell’s six points:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use 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.
What I only recalled upon reading the essay was the “Politics” half of it. Do not take that to mean that Orwell’s observations on the impact of language on politics should be ignored, however, for if anything those portions of the essay have only become more relevant since the essay was written. When language has been washed of its meaning like a black shirt washed so many times that it is now a pale grey, politicians will routinely employ increasing extremes of hyperbole in a desperate (and probably futile) effort to evoke the emotions that yesteryear could have been evoked with less inflated verbiage. This is how every election cycle becomes a new threat to democracy, instead of that phrase being reserved for circumstances like the Second World War.
Mostly, though, this post, like the essay, is about language. We are all guilty, I think, of violating at least one of Orwell’s six points, and we have certainly all seen dying metaphors, operators or verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words cluttering what we read, whether that be fiction or nonfiction, essay or novel. I, for one, am especially guilty of violating the second point on a regular basis. Interestingly, of all of these critiques it is only the one about the use of passive versus active voice that has really been adopted by modern literates, to the point that even legitimate uses of passive phraseology are now considered anathema. He might be known today almost exclusively for 1984, but Orwell was a prolific author and something of a political philosopher, and I hope that you read his essay on “Politics and the English Language” very soon.