A review of the essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘ by George Orwell. This review was originally posted here.
I came to this essay with the aim of purifying myself of the sin of bad writing. On various occasions my friends have turned away their faces in alarm from my private and public words, because they are, they say, grandiose, pretentious, confused and vague: reading me is like gripping a peeled fruit with both hands and trying to get to the seed in the middle by slowly pushing one’s fingers through the slimy mess congealed on the periphery: it’s highly unpleasant and something you’d rather leave to a person more adventurous.
My greatest trouble with completing the purge of sinful writing is letting go of arcane words. The use of esoteric language is a pleasure, like finding oneself locked in a secret pantry stocked with goodies only you can eat. But for fear of gorging myself into bad health, or of starving others of what could be good for them, it’s important I let myself out; and as with any pleasurable experience, letting go of the object of pleasure can be a trial. The poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote that princely vestments are expensive shackles that prevent a person from getting dirty and doing any hard work. Likewise, the use of complex words might seem to require the power of a kingly intellect, but they result in the writer and reader being at a disconnect and not understanding each other–and if a writer is not understood it’s as well as if he’d not been read at all. Going about without your rich clothing might make you feel a little naked and shameless, but your being will be so much more forcefully comprehended for it.
In connection with politics and, as Orwell talked about, a rejection of orthodoxy group-speak, being easily understood has its obvious benefits. If you always shoot for the words which will be most readily understood by people on all sides, political conversations are less likely to devolve into the arrangement of fisticuffs and partisan castle-building. That is, instead of relying on stock phrases whose meaning might be known only by those who speak similarly, you should taboo your words and simplify all terminology into strings of commonplace words. For example, the political euphemisms Orwell mentions, such as ‘pacification,’ should be simplified to mean, e.g., ‘the use of precautionary measures to quell violent resistance,’ or, more simply, as ‘killing rebels.’
Words that have multiple definitions and which are used often, such as ‘democracy,’ should be made taboo because discussions can take place where many people are talking about a nominal democracy with each person thinking of an entirely different thing. Each person should make clear what they mean by ‘democracy,’ by defining it before discussion begins as, say, ‘government of, by, and for the people,’ as ‘majority rules,’ as a ‘benevolent dictatorship,’ or as ‘socialism’ (because some people really do make the two concepts synonymous, and it’d be important to have that knowledge out). Of course, political mavericks who stray from party policy and smile off cue when they feel like it are actually very rarely found in politics, but if writing were clear, and intentions embodied in a written word that was pure, politicians would not be looked upon as glib quockerwockers whose tongues are silver as their suits.
There are only a few things wrong with this essay. First, Orwell doesn’t always commit to his rule of abstaining from the use of dying metaphors and pretentious diction, such as when he uses ‘flyblown,’ which is a term I cannot make sense of, and in the line, ‘making the results presentable by sheer humbug,’ which to the reader unfamiliar with a particular work of Dickens, will, I assume, like me, be left in the dark to poke around for meaning with the butt-end of an aged firefly. But one can’t blame Orwell for being human. I take especial issue with the last of his six rules for good writing: can you provide an example of what it means for something to be ‘outright barbarous’? Is it something other than pitfalls you’ve helped us overstep throughout this essay? Under what circumstances should we think your rules bad?
These problems are few and mostly superficial. The power of Orwell’s advice is evident in this essay: the writing is clear, his images are vibrant and unique (“and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern” Wow!), and one comes away with a store of practical advice that can be quickly put to practice. This is an excellent resource, one I’ve dog-eared for future reference when I feel the mould of postmodern sociological writing creep again into the swamp-realms of my wetware.