Orwell’s antidote to politician speak

Submitted by AWL on 7 March, 2008 - 7:41 Author: Peter Burton

It’s over 60 years since Orwell wrote the essay Politics and the English Language —yet its warnings are as relevant now as they were then. Orwell argued that the decline of the English language as a useful tool reflected the political conditions of his time. But it was an inexorable process. He thought the abuse could be stopped. He believed journalists had a particular responsibility amongst writers to show their dissatisfaction.

The power of the written word was being undermined by an adoption of Politician Speak. He gave five examples of bad language accusing the authors of “Ugliness’’, “Staleness of Imagery”, and “Lack of Precision”. Political writing was the most guilty of having those characteristics.

Prose construction was avoided by the use of lazy “metaphors”, “verbal false limbs”, “pretentious diction” and “meaningless words”.

Important, precise concepts like fascism and democracy had become distorted and were being used in a consciously deceptive way.

Modern writing shunned originality and was the product of lazy uncritical methods of work.

His antidote? Writers should ask:

1. What am I trying to say?

2. What words will express it?

3. Could I put it more shortly?

4. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Orwell argued there was causal link between clichéd phrases and the defence of the political status quo, euphemisms numbing the public as words got sanitised by colourless concepts such as “pacification” to describe “genocide”.

Orwell’s goal was not to straitjacket writers. His key was to let the “meaning choose the word”.

It’s almost twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the world in which Orwell lived. WMD’s and “45 minutes” are only the most infamous of many examples that could be given that show Orwell’s essay is, sadly, as relevant as ever.


Submitted by Janine on Sun, 10/08/2008 - 14:31

Orwell also condensed his observations into half-a-dozen rules, which I have posted above the desk where I write:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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