Politics and the English Language (George Orwell)

By George Orwell, 1946. (annotation by Xah Lee, 2005)

✲1 the affectations in this paragraph is quite high, which makes its communicative effectiveness suffer, but only if we consider it without regards to the context in question, which should be clear in subsequent paragraphs.

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes. ✲1

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad—I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen—but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative samples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:

(1) “I am not, indeed, sure, whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.” -- Professor Harold Laski (essay in _Freedom of Expression_)

ducks and drakes a duck is a female duck, a drake is a male duck. “ducks and drakes” is a UK colloquial term for stone skipping.
battery collection.

(2) “Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables as the basic put up with for tolerate or put at a loss for bewilder.” -- Professor Lancelot Hogben (_Interglossa_)

(3) “On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?” -- Essay on psychology in _Politics_ (New York)

(4) “All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen's clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror of the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoisie to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.” -- Communist pamphlet.

(5) “If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak cancer and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion's roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream—as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as 'standard English.' When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o'clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma'amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens!” -- Letter in _Tribune_

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery: the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged:

Dying Metaphors

iron resolution A firm resolution. Apparently this metaphor has fallen out of common usage in modernity.
✲4 Some of these have fallen out of age. Here're their meanings:
* ring the changes on = to run through the range of possible variations (MW).
* take up the cudgels for = To join in a dispute, especially in defense of a participant. (AHD)
* toe the line = To adhere to doctrines or rules conscientiously; conform. (AHD)
* ride roughshod over = A roughshod is a Shod with horseshoes having projecting nails or points to prevent slipping. To ride roughshod over someone means to treat someone sans regards.
* stand shoulder to shoulder with = fighting on the same side to death.
* play into the hands of = To act or behave so as to give an advantage to (an opponent). (AHD)
* axe to grind = a selfish or subjective aim. (AHD)
* grist to the mill = anything useful or profitable; a useful contribution.
* fishing in troubled waters = capitalise on someone else's misfortune, especially in politics.
* on the order of =Of a kind or fashion similar to; like. (AHD)
Achilles's heel = Achilles is a invincible warrior in Greek mythology, except that his heel is vulnerable. He died by a arrow to his heel. “Archilles' Heel” means one's weakness especially someone powerful.
swan song = The beautiful legendary song sung only once by a swan in its lifetime, as it is dying. Metaphorically, it is used to describe one's magnum opus before impending death.
* hotbed = An environment conducive to vigorous growth or development, especially of something undesirable. (AHD)
✲5 writings, in part, is to communicate the class status of the author. (A written text carries significant info about the author's knowledge, views, class, and inevitably his writting skill, even if the author does not want to.) By using jargons and such advanced literary figures of speech such as metaphors, one advertises his status, his know-how, to unsuspecting readers, even if he used it incorrectly or unaptly. This is the reason English writing has become the way it is, i.e. a host of catch-phrases, high-brow words, abstract idealisms, unnatural grammatical pedantry etc. This obfuscation phenomenon is observable in Chinese language's evolution history as well. The advocacy of reducing the complexity of English often fails. Basic English is one example. They fail because such proposal ignored the fact that language as a communication tool includes the communication beyond the text's content, as in body language. For instance, this very article or commentry, its subject proper and style of writing, apparently expressed author's exclusion of readers who do not have a advanced college education, among quite a lot implicit assumptions and attitudes, even it is nowhere stated in the text.

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed. ✲4 Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would be aware of this, and would avoid perverting the original phrase. ✲5

Operators, or Verbal False Limbs

✲6 Very accurate observation. Note the hilariousness of the author's style of mockery. Observe the phrase: “Verbal False Limbs”, the “etc., etc.”, the “so on and so forth”. Although, it is true that these decorative phraseologies are indeed a problem, however, they've been so ubiquitous as to become parts of the canonical English. Even the most donnish grammarians can't say many of the “verbal false limbs” so cited are problematic. In fact, a writing avoiding them will probably be unnatural.

These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formation, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved from anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth. ✲6

Pretentious Diction

Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers 1. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words and phrases translated from Russian, German or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentatory and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

「‡1. An interesting illustration of this is the way in which the English flower names which were in use till very recently are being ousted by Greek ones, snapdragon becoming antirrhinum, forget-me-not becoming myosotis, etc. It is hard to see any practical reason for this change of fashion: it is probably due to an instinctive turning-away from the more homely word and a vague feeling that the Greek word is scientific.」

Meaningless Words

✲7 indeed. For instance: “truth is beautiful”, “truth is ugly”, are phrases that have been used. Some would say this is the beauty of English and revel in it. e.g. poets and literary men. There is a huge following of pure literary tomfooleries, dotting and swooning on the ins and outs of writing. PunSTERs, poets, stylists, playWRIGHTs, constrained writers, euphuists. When done to a elaborate degree, it achieves a respectable status as the Art of Lettering. In many educational institutions there is a whole department dedicated to it.
✲8 This deception is often not direct or directly intentional, but in part due to the many problems of natural language in particular English, often unbeknownst to even professionals of the writing field. A movement to solve this problem is called Philosophy of Language, mainly lead by Bertrand Russell in philosophy to take down meaningless inquiries in metaphysics (e.g. Does God Exist?). In modern days, the problem of meaning and its precision in expression, are studied in fields such as mathematical logic, semantics branch of linguistics, and even the constructed language lojban based on predicate logic.

To confound the issue, people do not directly say what they mean. This acts as a communication by hinting. For example, the American idiom “this is getting a bit old” as means to “give a benefit of doubt” when being bothered, is exemplary. All in all, a complete linguistic field dedicated to it is called pragmatics.

In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. 2 Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. Xs work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. ✲7 Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies “something not desirable.” 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 sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet Press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive ✲8. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

「‡2. Example: “Comfort's catholicity of perception and image, strangely Whitmanesque in range, almost the exact opposite in aesthetic compulsion, continues to evoke that trembling atmospheric accumulative hinting at a cruel, an inexorably serene timelessness . . . Wrey Gardiner scores by aiming at simple bullseyes with precision. Only they are not so simple, and through this contented sadness runs more than the surface bittersweet of resignation.” (Poetry Quarterly.)」

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

“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 favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Here it is in modern English:

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels 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.”

✲9 yeah, to write the “uncertainty of human fortunes”. Here, the author gives a clear indication of jocularity, as oppose to a deadpan critique. Part of the reason that the author cannot be totally serious is because the issue tackled is extremely complex. It embodies logic, semantics, human behavior, language evolution, etc. We do find tons of problems in English and English writing, but it is not likely human animals can ever correct it, assuming a correct way is even theoretically possible or desirable. To give a simple example for illustration, as one well-versed in modern mathematics may know, even in the study of pure logic, there are unresolved foundational problems and schools of thoughts. See: Philosophy of mathematics, Gödel's incompleteness theorem.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3), above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations—race, battle, bread—dissolve into the vague phrase “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing—no one capable of using phrases like “objective consideration of contemporary phenomena”—would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. 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 its 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. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes ✲9, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

✲10 indeed. To write in a succinct, content-based, logic-oriented style is very difficult. Adding insult to the injury, it is often not appreciated, and will be condemned as dry, inert writing. And if it is so well-written to the point of using only simple words, it will have little fanfare to attract readers. (a mere sprinkling of elective diction sells) All these are attributions to the way English or English writing is. Consciously or subconsciously, people want chantable writings.
✲11 A very sound advice, even amongst mocking remarks. However, note your audience. Such writing style is occasionally employed in literatures such as text books, and on occasion it is employed well. That is to say: simple, logical, succinct. The entire enterprise for such style of writing is called Technical Writing, unfortunately, a significant part of technical literatures on technical matters and as well as Technical Writing Tutorials are not at all simple, succinct, logical. The worst of such exhibitions can be found in today's books and documentations in Information Technology industry. (see: Python Documentation Problems)

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier—even quicker, once you have the habit—to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don't have to hunt about for 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. When you are composing in a hurry—when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech—it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style ✲10. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash—as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot—it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in fifty-three words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip alien for akin, making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means. (3), if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink. In (5), words and meaning have almost parted company. People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning—they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another—but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? ✲11 But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing.

✲12 The linking of the state of affairs of English to states of polity is new to me, but i suppose because politicians need to attract audience, therefore it is fitting. It is interesting to note that George Orwell wrote this article in 1946, and 3 years later, “1984” is published. In “1984”, it contains the new language Newspeak used by Big Brother to thwart free-thinking. The theory that language affects thought has been propounded by linguists, so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and the logic-based artificial language lojban is in part a experimental offspring.

Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White Papers and the speeches of under-secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity. ✲12

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. 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. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. 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:

“While freely 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.”

✲13 A remarkable observation. Sincerity is very important. To even begin clear writing, one must be sincere. However, this does not mean all writing must have such a state of mind. There are, to wit, poetry, satire, deliberate nonsense (e.g. Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking-Glass, Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal ). Also noteworthy is that clear writing does not demand sincerity. For instance, one can write clearly with a intention to deceive. What is said here is that clarity comes with sincerity hand in hand, as a matter of expression with practicality so to speak. Or, as the author puts it “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity” -- a effective way of putting it than the literarily unimpressive: “To write clearly, one should be sincere”.
✲14 The author's tying of state of politics to language is interesting. I do not think that politics's influence on language is severe enough to be remarkable. Unless, of course, such government inaugurates a programme specifically to change language, as the red China has done to reform Chinese characters and install Pinyin phonetic/Romanization system, for better or worse. (In this case, i think it is not worse. (i.e. there are flaws in the schemes of character simplification and pinyin, but they are arguably just a language modernization effort. (But as far as politics goes, the scale of propaganda that has gone under Chinese Communist Party is among the largest in history. It is said that the world's most printed book is Mao's Little Red Book (aka Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong).)))

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. ✲13 When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find—this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify—that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship. ✲14

✲15 Here the author clearly suggests that languages affect or even control thought. This idea has been commented above. I think that language effects thought or directions of thought to a great degree. See: Math Terminology and Naming of Things, Chantable Phraseology, Jargons of Software industry.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning's post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he “felt impelled” to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence that I see: “The Allies have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany's social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a cooperative and unified Europe.” You see, he “feels impelled” to write—feels, presumably, that he has something new to say—and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain. ✲15

✲16 The phrase “leave no stone unturned” unfortunately is still with us, contrary to the author's assertion.
✲17 As have commented above, to rectify English or English writing style is nigh impossible. There are great forces against it, such as class-stratification formation. Slangs, jargons, are frequent results of faction advertising. Human animals also resist simplicity. If a simple language has been formalized, people will intentional break it to just be playful, communicate rebellion, or out of practical needs (such as by informal abbreviation, abridgement, spontaneous acronyms, implicit reference, practical metaphor.).

Practical communication needs also is a primary force preventing languages forming a simple grammar. For instance, idioms are developed out of circumstances, and they are rich and persist in perhaps all languages, many of which became the de facto standard expression. (e.g. the O.K. in English) Metaphore, is the primary mean to express new concepts. To see this, think about how one'd go about describing a new concept. Most likely by borrowing words or descriptions that is similar. Similar in looks or in the abstract. For example in the computer field: name space, hash table, brute force algorithm, stack, tree, interface, mouse, windows, troll, exit… And mainstream examples: vanilla sex, banana boat (ice cream desert), radio dish, movie star, brotherhood, Big Brother, political right/left, bohemian, maverick, sinister, underhand, chairman, hotbed, cold feet, right-hand…

Various efforts have been tried to rectify English. There are Charles Kay Ogdens' Basic English movement (1930) on English simplification, David Bourland's E-Prime (1965) on neutralizing perceived perniciousness in “be”, George Bernard Shaw's Shavian alphabet (1959) to rectify spelling/pronunciation mismatches. There are also efforts to completely ditch English in favor of artificial languages instead. Most famous being L L Zamenhof's Esperanto (1887) and James Cooke Brown's logic-based loglan (1955). The fate of these is that 99% of even college educated never heard of any of them.
✲17.5 The “not un-” construction actually gives nuances. For example, “He is not unamerican” is quite different from “He is American”. “She is not uneasy” is not the same as “She is easy” or “She is at ease”. The reason for all these seemingly illogical bewildering sophistries are because English at heart is very wild. Or rather, language and human's use of it is wild, at heart or not.

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were “explore every avenue” and “leave no stone unturned” ✲16, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the ‘not un-’ formation out of existence 3, to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defense of the English language implies more than this, and perhaps it is best to start by saying what it does not imply. ✲17

「‡3. One can cure oneself of the ‘not un-’ formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field. ✲17.5

To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a “standard English” which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outgrown its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a “good prose style.” On the other hand it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one's meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations. Afterwards one can choose—not simply accept— the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch around and decide what impression one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

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

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

✲17.7 Hey, cut it out!

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. ✲17.7

(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.

✲18 The method suggested is akin to Technical Writing. Ernest Hemingway (Nobel laureate for literature, 1954) is said to posses a laconic writing style using just simple words. Bertrand Russell, also advocates and uses a style that primarily relies on clarity of logic. (also a Nobel laureate for literature, 1950).

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article. ✲18

Stuart Chase (1888 to 1985) American economist and engineer trained at MIT. Stuart Chase
quietism roughly meaning staying uninvolved, inactive. Quietism.

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.

✲19 On the whole, the author's tone seems half-hearted. The Basic English movement is right about author's time, apparently he is aware of it and probably doesn't care for it. The author is more concerned about the content of writing than syntactical or grammatical rectifications. He advocates logicality and simplicity in writing, more or less of that applying today's technical writing to all writings other than literary musings. The way the author presented his idea as parody, coupled with heavy ties against politics, seems more to make a point than as a serious proposition.

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. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin where it belongs.✲19

Notes from Xah Lee

This essay is written by George Orwell, who wrote the infamous dystopian fiction 1984 Buy at amazon .

The annotation on the side are made by Xah Lee (me). The footnote numbering are not necessarily consecutive integers, but are ordered. The footnotes with double dagger are by George Orwell.