In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible...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. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
-- George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”
"Politics and the English
Language" is a brilliant essay written by George Orwell in 1946.
Orwell observes that our language is being egregiously misused, and
argues that this has grave political repercussions. The sort of
language that he has in his crosshairs is any overly florid and
muddled prose; Orwell characterizes the style of writing in question
as having both "staleness of imagery" and "lack of
precision." This is a purposely broad category which catches
many sorts of pleonastic drivel, from excessively jargon-filled academese to
politically correct tripe. Orwell gives several examples of poor
writing from contemporary sources, but the most illustrative example
is a fictional one: he takes a sample of perfectly clear English from
Ecclesiastes and "modernizes" it to frightening (and
hilarious) effect. Here's the original passage:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet
riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but
time and chance happeneth to them all.
And Orwell's "modern" version:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the
conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits
no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a
considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken
We've all written this way — well, maybe not all of us, but
many of us have fallen into this trap, slapping together a pastiche
of phrases we've heard before to gussy up our language, make
ourselves sound more impressive, and in the process totally burying
our meaning. Orwell: "It is easier — even quicker,
once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not
an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If
you use ready-made phrases, you not only don't have to hunt about for
the words; you also don't have to bother with the rhythms of your
sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more
or less euphonious." We are lazily stringing together cliches
and ready-made common phrases rather than actually doing the work of
choosing the words that best express our ideas and thoughts. This
leads to prose that is more convoluted and obscure, fitting the ideas
underneath it like a poorly-made suit. Orwell points out four
particular linguistic tricks that are commonly used in this sort of
Dying metaphors. These are metaphors that are common enough
to have no power left in them, used only to save the author the
trouble of inventing a fresh and new metaphor. "Reared its ugly
head," for example, is so tired that the image of an ugly head
rarely enters the mind of a reader. Worse, it's often used in
conjunction with metaphors where the putative imagery makes no sense
at all. "The red banner of Communism has reared its ugly head."
Banners don't have heads, ugly or not, and a mixed metaphor is a
sure earmark of an eyesore, if you'll excuse the phrase.
Operators or verbal false limbs. Render assistance to
instead of help, inquire as to instead of ask,
and in general replacing monosyllabic verbs with unnecessarily
complicated verb phrases for no reason other than the fact that they
are simply longer and therefore more impressive.
Pretentious diction. This is self-explanatory. Facilitate
instead of help, ineffectually instead of poorly,
verbal interlocution instead of speech. Orwell doesn't
say that the more complicated words should never be used; he simply
says that there's no need for a more complex word when you actually
mean to use a simpler one, especially when clarity is
Meaningless words. These
are words that have been used so often, in so many different
contexts, that to use them without defining them leaves them
meaningless. Orwell: "The words democracy, socialism,
freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several
different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In
the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no
agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all
These elements of obfuscation are certainly ugly, but Orwell's point is not just an aesthetic or semantic one. The more complete the divorce between language and meaning, the easier it is for politicians to say anything they like without actually saying anything at all. East Germany, perhaps the most complete police state the planet has ever seen, was called the German Democratic Republic. What meaning does the word “democracy” have in such a context? President Bush has used the word “freedom” as if it is synonymous with “absolute good.” I'm all for freedom, but that's not what the word means, and Bush uses it so often that it's become another political catchphrase, its definition becoming hazier each time it is said. This is the political equivalent of semantic saturation; these words are used by so many different persons in so many different contexts that their meaning is no longer clear. Worse, this is often the intention of the politicians in question, no matter where on the political spectrum they fall. Who wants to go on the record as being against democracy, or being soft on crime, or favoring the elimination of free speech? The solution is to purposely use definitions of words that are not commensurate with the implied definitions. In other words, the solution is to be intentionally vague about the meaning of the words you use, in order to dupe your audience. To keep the populace even more confused, smashing ready-made phrases together into a train wreck of a sentence is a beautiful way to keep the reality behind these sentences harder to see. If you are, for example, trying to justify repression of your political enemies, stay away from simple, clear language and ensure that your meaning is clouded by poorly formed clauses, overuse of the passive voice, tired metaphors, and all the other tricks mentioned above. Orwell gives the example of someone who is trying to defend Soviet-style political assassination:
He cannot say outright, 'I believe in killing off your opponents
when you can get good results by doing so'. Probably, therefore, he
will say something like this:
conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the
humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that
a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an
unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors
which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been
amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.'
Orwell goes on to suggest several simple rules of composition that
effectively prevent writing or speaking in this manner:
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.
These rules look simple, but they are far more difficult to follow
than you may expect. Writing in accordance with these rules takes
work. It requires thought, care, and attention to meaning —
as well it should, because that's what these rules were designed to
ensure. George Orwell knew what he was doing, and the continued
pertinence of this essay, 60 years later, is perhaps even more
striking than that of, say, another work of his written around the
same time. Read this essay. It will make you a better writer and a
sharper thinker. It will also make you a little bit more cynical, but
it's worth it. The sheer density of insight that is packed into this
concise and lucid essay is astounding. I have not even scratched the
surface here. I mean, I haven't even begun to fully unpack the
conceptual underpinnings of the politico-semantic theory constructed
by Orwell in this essay. I apologize. What it was which I intended to
suggest, in the parlance of our times, so to speak, as it were, in a
very real sense, in a not unreasonable tone of voice...
Ah crap. Well, I'm sure you know what I mean.
Orwell's essay can be found online in several places. The version
with the best formatting is here:
Node the Awesome