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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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