The world doesn’t make much sense to me. Or, more precisely, the sense that the world makes to others is not the sense it makes to me.
Nowhere is this more evident in the use and abuse of language. Language of any kind is a slippery, imperfect instrument at best. And if we want to get good use out of the tool of language, we should take some pains to see that our language stays in good condition.
This is George Orwell’s first point in his wonderful essay “Politics and the English Language”
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 toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.
To be sure, this essay is a source of wonderful, practical advice for anyone who wants to use, as he puts it,
language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.
And to this end Orwell offers these six rules:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
But as you can see from the first quote, for George, the stakes are considerably higher than the marks on your next term paper. Or the stylistic considerations of your next memo. He points out that allowing this kind of sloppy language to advance unchecked also allows people to defend the most horrible of acts.
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 the 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.”
We can easily come up with additions to Orwell’s 1946 list of atrocities (to both persons and language). Most obviously, the President of the United States is to receive the Nobel Peace Prize while his country is engaged in two wars. One of which he has just escalated. More generally, the United States has a “defense” budget that is 48% or almost half of the world’s combined military expenditure. Observing that offense is more costly than defense, and that the United States spends 71% more than Russia, China, Korea, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria combined, one is moved, at the very least, to begin the search for a different adjective to couple with that use of the word budget. More subtly, Social Security is bankrupt. Those who place their trust in it will find no security at all.
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 that 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.
To appreciate the timeless insight of George Orwell, you only need to remember that in Saddam Hussein’s interview with Dan Rather, Saddam claimed that he was the democratically elected leader of Iraq. He proudly told Mr. Rather that he had received 100% of the vote. Dan was skeptical of the percentage. But what he couldn’t do was refute Saddam’s claim. For there is no agreed definition of the word democracy.
Ideas have consequences. And insofar as each of our words is an idea in a more crystalline form, we should take care with them. Orwell understood this and argued for it with brilliance and passion in his essay “Politics and Language.”
The complete text of “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell is available here: http://langs.eserver.org/politics-english-language.txt