George Orwell on politics and the English language

Please take the time to read George Orwell’s 1846 essay, “Politics and the English Language”, available here.

Orwell takes us through a number of the bad uses of modern English. I don’t want to go into the details as he put it far more clearly than I could, but he states that we are (essentially) too careless with our words, in that they don’t mean what we intend them to, or they are too vague, or too pretentious, or that they are simply meaningless.

He created an apt example, contrasting a well-recognised excerpt from Ecclesiastes with a passage that has the same meaning (or slightly less), written in ‘modern English’.

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.

Aside from being slightly humerous if applied to corporate-speak, he makes the political implications clear. When we are unclear on words, we are unclear on concepts. The example given is if we do not understand what Fascism really means, how can we be against it? and that Fascism now refers to something that is simply ‘bad’. I’m slightly paraphrasing here, but the point is well-made.

We are taught in schools that fancy or rarely used words are better than plain or common words. We have grown up surrounded by Orwell’s ‘modern English’. The sad thing is, we would be more comfortable writing Orwells ‘translation’ than the original Ecclesiastes.

What does this mean? It means that English is more readily abused by those wanting to distract or deceive. The word ‘terrorism’ is being distorted to justify increasingly severe laws against our freedom. Much as we, the common public, didn’t (and probably still don’t)  understand the meanings and implications of the word Fascism, we don’t understand terrorism. Worse still, we have a war against terror. We have a war against an emotion, an abstract concept.

What worries me is we will get to the situation described in 1984, where there is a new form of English that doesn’t allow for the description of unprescribed concepts. Our language shapes our thought, which in turn further shapes our language (Orwell describes this in the essay). If we would rather be circumspect and verbose in how we describe things, our thinking will become circumspect and it will be harder to think about and discuss concrete concepts and thoughts.

Unfortunately, this was not the well-thought out analysis I intended it to be. Partly due to time constraints, and doubtless partly because of my inability to express my thoughts directly. I’ll leave you with the guidelines Orwell left to avoid perpetuating the abuse of our language:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
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Installing Debian on QEMU

Since I decommissioned my home server in favour of an NSLU2 (a NAS), I’ve found myself without a Linux machine to much about with or develop on while on the go (well, whenever I can’t use my laptop). So instead I’ll be using a virtual machine by running QEMU from my USB drive. Since my old server ran Debian, and since I haven’t checked it out in a while other than using it’s offspring Ubuntu.

Note: I would recommend getting this set up running on a folder on your hard drive, then copying it to your USB drive if you intend to do that. It will probably be faster, and it will save you trouble if your disk image isn’t large enough.

To get a QEMU binary for Windows, you can download from here, although this is no longer outdated and uses the 0.9.0 release. Unzip it wherever.

Open up a command prompt. cd to the QEMU directory. Create two disk images by running:

qemu-img create -f qcow2 debian.img 1024M .

qemu-img create -f qcow2 home.img 1024M .

This creates two 1024Mb sized qcow images for you to work with – one for your system and applications, and one for your home directory(ies). Obviously you can change the name and size to suit. My USB drive is 4Gb – if you have something smaller like 2Gb, use 768M for debian.img and 512M for home.img. If you have a 1Gb drive, you could try smaller sizes, but you’d probably have more luck trying something like DSL (Damn Small Linux) or puppylinux. I originally tried this with a cumulative 512M for the root and swap partitions, and it wasn’t large enough.

Grab a Debian CD image. I would recommend one of the netinst images. I’m using the Lenny Beta 2 image (here, or the .torrent), but you can use a stable image, or one of the weekly / daily snapshots. Put the image in the same directory as QEMU.

Create a file debian.bat, with the command:

qemu.exe -net user,vlan=1 -net nic,model=rtl8139,vlan=1 -L . -m 128 -hda debian.img -hdb home.img -cdrom debian-LennyBeta2-i386-netinst.iso -boot d -soundhw all -localtime

You can change the -m option for more or less virtual RAM, you can leave out the model=rtl8139 to use the default ne2k driver (I just like Realteks, even virtual ones ;-)), and obviously change the -cdrom option if you use a different image. You can also use Kqemu, but I’m not going to go into that.

Additionally, you can use the command -M isapc (ISA network card), but for that you will have to remove the model=rtl8139; and before using the installer, press [TAB] and add noacpi nolacpi to the installer startup options, otherwise QEMU will crash.

Debian can then be installed as normal. I didn’t install anything that depends on X as I don’t want a graphical system, thought QEMU should handle it fine if you do. I used the partition manager to create a swap partition of about 128 megs. Mount your second ‘hard drive’ (home.img) under “/home”. if you don’t do this now you can do it later by editing /etc/fstab.

(My second disk image / hard drive is mounted as:

/dev/hdb1 	 /home   	 ext3   	 errors=remount-ro   	 0   	 1


Depending on the CPU of your host machine, whether or not you are using Kqemu, and the speed of your internet connection it will take anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours to install.

Once installed you can apt-get install build-essential, or apt-get install nethack, or apt-get install python, or whatever floats your boat. Or, if you’re like me, you can faff about trying to enlarge your partitions because they aren’t big enough.