What springs to mind when you hear the name George Orwell? The brilliantly perceptive allegory of Animal Farm? The year 1984? The little known essay he wrote entitled ‘Politics And The English Language’?
I have to admit, it’s a great essay – far better than anything I could ever write on the subject. In fact, you should probably just skip to the link at the bottom and read it right now. If you don’t have time, read the rest of this post; and I’ll summarise the best bits for you!
To start with, Orwell rails against some typical faults in the political writing seen in his time & today. They include:
- Dying Metaphors – saves thinking of one yourself at the expense of clarity and effective imagery. Includes: stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, fishing in troubled waters.
- Pretentious Diction – grand adjectives dress up biased or uninteresting statements. It seems bad writers, whether scientific, political, or sociological are ‘haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.’
- Use of Meaningless Words – words used so often to encompass so many different conflicting aspects that they lose their meaning. Eg. ‘Fascism’ now pretty much only means ‘something vaguely bad’.
Then he goes on to ‘translate’ a passage from the Ecclesiastes into Modern English. So;
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.
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 into account.
Orwell’s analysis of his imaginary equivalent is worth noting:
The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (‘time and chance’) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English.
He ends his essay with six golden rules to help you steer clear of writing in ‘Political Language’. I at least try to follow these rules whenever possible; 2, 3 and 5 have stuck with me especially.
- 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.
The essay ends with these final words;
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.