Thursday, 3 April 2008

Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’

Its 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 far from being an inexorable process he thought the abuse could be stopped and believed journalists had a particular responsibility amongst writers to show their dissatisfaction.

The power of the written word was being under-minded 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 anecdote: 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 ?

He 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 straightjacket writers . His key was to let the “meaning choose the word” . It’s almost twenty years since the fall of the Berlin wall . WMD’s and “45 minutes” are only the most infamous of many examples that could be given that show Orwells’ essay is, sadly , as relevant as ever.

Peter Burton

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