George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is one of those classics of letters that bears repeated reading throughout life. It remains a hectoring challenge to anyone who tries to write, as Orwell did, always wrestling with a deceptively simple language to articulate what we want it to say.
I first read his essay, as nearly everyone who has did, in undergraduate school and promptly forgot it amid a flood of impressions. I returned to it much later later to find his blunt advice and weird prophesy calling out like one of those burned-out stars that still shines like a beacon across the eons.
And of course, like any thoughtful piece of writing that gives back over the course of a life (The Gettysburg Address and The Great Gatsby come to mind), I came back to this article after working in public diplomacy during wartime and found it to be a nuanced source of interest and inspiration.
Orwell is often quoted from this article that “[p]olitical language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The ellipsis is critical (it’s always quoted with the ellipsis) — he attacks across the spectrum, from Conservatives and Anarchists. The edit takes quite a bit of the sting out of the quote. And the quote itself hurts much more when removed from the context of the essay, which is his most practical manual for good, clear, political writing.
This is interesting because for a few years Orwell was what might be pejoratively called a propagandist — he wrote (and wrote well by all accounts) for the BBC during World War II, when the broadcasting arm of the British empire had a specifically political purpose in mobilizing and energizing the colonies to protect the crown from fascism. Orwell did not particularly dislike this mission (although he did hate phrases like “not particularly dislike”), but he was utterly dispirited by the waste, bureaucracy, and the “trash” and “bile” broadcast each day.
In other words, he thought the BBC could propagandize better, and this essay was in part an attempt to understand why political language was so imbecilic, dull, flat and dim. “Politics and the English Language” was one of his first comprehensive examinations of and remedies for this problem.
In fact “Politics” was part of a less-known series of articles Orwell wrote following the war, all on a theme: the nexus of language, politics, democracy and freedom. “Propaganda and Demotic Speech” (1944) is perhaps the best known after “Politics,” but then come “Politics vs. Literature” (1946), “The Prevention of Literature” (1946), and “Writers and Leviathan” (1948). These all lead, in most scholars’ understanding, to Animal Farm and 1984, and particularly Orwell’s extraordinary development of Newspeak. But taken together, they also are an expansive exploration of the relationship between politics and language and, more specifically, how we use language (specifically English), to communicate political ideas.
Orwell thought we used English badly. (“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,” he wrote.) After some thought and reading, I decided to take issue with his conclusion. I believe that the language itself is the problem regarding its carrying capacity for political ideas. Due to theoretical constructs built up for too long in the past we lack the vocabulary to express basic political concepts. Those ideas that we can express invariably come out in the cliches that Orwell despised.
The only remedy is what I have been doing on this site: to develop and substitute a new conceptual vocabulary to describe political ideas, experiences and realities. The following essay, “Democracy and Political Language,” is an homage to Orwell and another effort to expand that vocabulary.
I will attack one cliche at a time, but it feels at time as though I am brandishing a sword (or pen) at a waterfall. Fortunately we also have a mighty shield — Orwell’s own words. He struggled himself with the cliches he hated, wrestled the words to say what he thought. And that in turn shaped how he thought: “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” Surely, I’m on to something.