Monday, 30 January 2017

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell



I haven't yet read enough of Orwell's works to decide whether I like him or not, but one thing I have learned in our short acquaintance is that he's not one to prevaricate or candy-coat his ideas.  If you don't want his opinions, don't read him, and if you do, get ready to duck!

Orwell begins his essay, Politics and the English Language, by speculating on the impending collapse of the English Language. Is its demise a mirroring of society's cultural suicide, simply an innocuous descent that is only natural given the state of our world?  Yet Orwell believes that there is not just a natural cause, but more pointedly, political and economic ones, and even the effects themselves can become causes that reinforce the original cause.  For example:
"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 to us to have foolish thoughts."
There is a remedy though: if we clean up our bad habits when applying language to thoughts, our thoughts will become clearer.

A Song Without Words (1919)
John William Godward
source Wikiart

Orwell now gives five writing examples exemplifying problems with how people use language:

  1. an essay by Professor Harold Laski (who uses 5 negatives in 53 words)
  2. a paragraph from Interglossa by Professor Lancelot Hogben (mixed metaphors)
  3. an essay on psychology in Politics (meaninglessness)
  4. a Communist pamphlet (stale phrases)
  5. a letter in the Tribune (words and meaning part company)

The two main problems in all these examples are a "staleness of imagery" and a "lack of precision".  Modern English prose is ripe with these issues, but they crop up continuously in political writing.   Instead of sticking with concrete thoughts, the abstract creepy in, melting away the valuable meaning of ideas, instead consisting of a stringing together of hackneyed phrases.  He then lists examples of the ways that the adequate construction of prose is habitually avoided.

Dying Metaphors:  These are metaphors between the good and bad, a garbage dump of metaphors that have lost all expressive power and are used only to avoid the trouble of creating new evocative phrases.  Whenever inconsistent phrases are mixed or the original meaning is convoluted, it is evidence that the person is not particularly interested in what they are saying.

Operators of Verbal False Limbs:  Used to avoid choosing correct verbs and nouns but give the appearance of a harmony by expanding the sentence with the use of extra syllables.  Examples of such are: make itself felt, exhibit a tendency to, etc.  In addition, the passive voice is preferred instead of the active, noun constructions are employed instead of gerunds (by examination instead of by examining), verbs are cut down by -ize and de- formations, clichéd statements are presented as intelligent by the not un- formation, clean conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by phrases such as, with respect to, the fact that, etc, and sentence completions are made to sound mundane by such phrases as deserving serious consideration, etc.

Pretentious Diction:  Catch words are used to adorn simple statements to give biased judgements an appearance of scientific authority.  He goes on to describe specific words used in political writings, claiming the result is slovenliness and vagueness, to obscure the real issues.

Meaningless Words:  Passages with a complete dearth of meaning abound in many areas of writing, but principally in art and literary criticism.  Orwell gives a few examples, such as:
"The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far 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 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 régime 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."
In an attempt to show that modern writing does not choose words for meaning nor does it evoke powerful images for clarity, Orwell gives first an example from Ecclesiastes, and then his own modern translation.  His experiment is quite fascinating:

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, or yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

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.

He then analyzes them to show the weakness of the translation and claims modern writing is lazy, borrowing ideas and phrases and "gumming" them together in order to use minimal mental effort; also there is often an attempt to convey emotional meaning without attention to detail nor the actual point.

Language is Not Transparent
Mel Bochner
source Wikiart

A responsible writer will ask himself the following questions when writing:

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?
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

However, Orwell says, most writers are contend to string together cliches, obscuring their meaning even to themselves.

In politics, the writing is particularly dreadful, all the literary mistakes converging and causing the viewers to feel that "one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy," who is being transformed into a machine by the very words he speaks.  By the constant bombardment of meaningless jargon, people's consciousness becomes sleepy and allows atrocities to be labelled as pacification, or transfer of population, or elimination of unreliable elements.  This particular phraseology has no metaphor content and therefore images are lacking, allowing the reader/listener to easily dismiss the human connection and thus controlling our emotional response to it.  Inflated euphemisms are used to justify cruelty.

The Treachery of Images (1948)
Rene Magritte
source Wikiart

Yet while thoughts are able to corrupt language, the reverse is also true.  You can catch this impoverished writing, like a disease, and have your mind affected by it.  Orwell admits that in his essay he has committed some of the literary crimes he is attempting to reveal.  The only way to avoid these faults is to continually be on guard against them. We can start by eradicating worn-out phrases and metaphors, but the change must go deeper.  He goes on to explain what these changes do not imply, then gives the reader rules to follow when intuition fails:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use 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.
By applying these rules, one could still write badly, but one could not write the drivel of which he has been speaking or using as examples.  His goal with his essay is not to consider "the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought."

For:
"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."
Young Girl Learning to Write
Camille Corot
source Wikiart

A very powerful essay by Orwell and one that requires time and deep thought to digest. On most points, I agree with him wholeheartedly, but there are a few minor claims that poke at my passion for words.  To use less words that have Greek or Latin roots, seems overly particular.  These words have been in use for centuries and add to the language instead of detracting from it.  And while Orwell didn't directly say that he takes offence at larger more complex words, the appearance in his examples was to severely diminish them (sorry, if I misread you, George, but that was my impression).  While I certainly do not advocate using complex words to diminish meaning or cloak intent, I do think that they are valuable for enjoyment in reading.  Would one rather have a French seven course dinner, or MacDonald's?  If one is discerning in the culinary arts, certainly the former.  However, just as the ingredients for the seven course dinner would have to be used with style and attention, so must complex words be, when writing.

My next choice for my Deal Me In Challenge is suppposed to be a children's classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aitken, but I'm having some trouble finding it (yes, those of you who know of my "issue" of losing my DMI choices can laugh at me), so next week might find a different post appearing.  Time shall reveal!


Week 5 - Deal Me In Challenge - Eight of Spades









12 comments:

  1. I don't like his 5 rules. It is a dumbing down. I use words that aren't in common usage when I can because it is ALWAYS better to have a wider vocabulary than a narrow one. And what use is having it if one refuses to use it?

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    1. I agree with you and supported our viewpoint in my summary, BUT ..... I think Orwell explains his purpose in that he is not examining "the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought." The more I consider his purpose, the more I think he's against large words because in our/his culture they are used to muddy or obscure thought. That's why he suggests the shorter words because with them, it's nearly impossible to do that. If a complex vocabulary weren't used to obscure meaning, I wonder if he'd be more open to its use ...???? I think so ....

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  2. Very interesting essay and I enjoyed your comments and those of Book Stooge.
    Personally I like agree with Orwell's 5 rules. For instance Raymond Carver’s minimalist style, with short, simple sentences, very little detail at the same time provokes an emotional response without complex words or long convoluted sentences.
    I agree with Orwell's comment about 'metaphors that have lost all expressive power'. I just read one last night the is still lingering in my mind "...it seduced her butterfly attention." Words are so personal and only the one who is writing knows what is best for his audience and himself! Again, great essay, commentary....food for thought!

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    1. I wouldn't want to scrap complex vocabulary because I think there's a beauty to it if used properly. But for political language I agree with him that simplicity works best for clarity. It would be wonderful to see more metaphors in writing. They do convey a thoughts and ideas in a very effective and beautiful manner.

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  3. I think your assessment of Orwell is fascinating! You have sent me to my library website, and I am requesting a copy of the book (which I read long ago but want to revisit because of your wonderful posting).
    BTW, I invite you to visit my blog; perhaps Orwell will be featured soon:
    http://rtcommonplace.blogspot.com/

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  4. Great post, Cleo! My interest in Orwell has seen a resurgence in recent years,partly because a book club of mine read his "Down and Out in Paris and London" but also because he keeps popping up in Deal Me In posts. I haven't read this essay before, but it sounds right up my alley. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

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    1. Thanks, Jay! I've read a few Orwell essays and I find him different every time, not only in the tone, but also the structure and even in the way he presents his ideas. He's an interesting writer and one I'll be happy to read more of!

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  5. i read this. interesting. post. agree. mostly. a dearth of expressive reference in classical philological demeanor may facilitate precosmic apprehension...

    if the thought comes through clearly, any style of writing is good, imo... poetry is a good example: some poems kick off multitudinous ideas with very stark words; and others do the opposite but have the same effect... it rather sounds to me like O was barging about looking for something to write about and landed on his typewriter...

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    1. LOL! Very clever! A interesting and revealing comparison. :-)

      He did focus more on the political aspect of writing. It was funny how he chose academics to pick on as well. It just goes to show that education doesn't necessarily make one a good writer.

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  6. Excellent post. Add me to the list of those who want to read this essay. Thanks for featuring it.

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    1. Thanks, MG, and welcome to my blog! :-) You have a great blog and are certainly an avid reader. I envy the number of books you're able to read. I do hope you read this essay soon. It's certainly worth the time!

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