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Politics perverts the English Language

by Nalini Haynes

Orwell mourned decline of the English Language 67 years ago but authors still need to catch up

67 years ago, George Orwell wrote ‘Politics and the English Language,’ an essay on the decline of the English language. He urged people to improve their use of language, to communicate clearly and to lead by example. Orwell’s essay is so relevant it could have been written today. Orwell’s gripes, complete with examples, made me realise my deplorable prose is the bastard child of my formative years in the Australian Public Service and my academic studies. This week’s homework for Writing Professionally, a subject at RMIT University, is to read Orwell’s essay and answer some questions.

Orwell’s complaint

Orwell argues that politics has invaded speech; sloppy thinking coupled with political intent to obscure meaning has caused a decline in the use of language.

Our civilization is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse … All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia … the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes … Words of this kind [e.g. ‘democracy’] are often used in a consciously dishonest way…

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. 

Orwell’s description of the decay of the English language and the motivation behind this decay is chilling. How many times have I heard politicians use similar language with like-minded goals? The answer is as many times as I have watched the news.

In Babylon 5 the ‘new political era’ on Earth started with Night Watch. Over several episodes, characters rewrote language. EarthGov passed legislation outlawing plain speaking language that undermined the government. A political officer told Sheridan that poverty and homelessness aren’t problems on Earth anymore, going on to explain that the homeless are now undeserving radical elements who have chosen to live outside of the system. Yay team. Thus the line between those ‘within’ the system and those ‘outside’ of the system was drawn on the basis of being ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving.’ Babylon 5 characters mutilated the English language to serve a political agenda; B5 spoofed the political reality that is the source of Orwell’s complaint.

Orwell’s comments are still relevant for contemporary writers

In the enlightened 21st century, politicians are even more skilled at mutilating the English language to cloud meaning. Politicians questioned by journalists spew verbal diarrhea, buying time while wracking their brains for an ingratiating response or they filibuster, wasting time until the question is lost in the pile of shit upon the floor.

As a young adult I worked in the Australian Public Service, loosing my grasp of the good prose instilled in me by years of reading excellent works of fiction. Force-fed Orwell’s bane, politically-inspired language, I became what I ate. Sucked into the Bog of Eternal Stench for a kiss – a hope – of a career, I forgot the joy of clarity.

I used to read newspapers but I gave them up as a bad habit. Shitty writing and worse research inspired me to get my news elsewhere. Recently my superannuation fund put out a newsletter; the first paragraph of the CEO’s letter on page 2 was pure comedy in the light of Orwell’s essay written 67 years earlier.

Orwell’s 6 rules

Orwell sets out six rules to defend against the decline of the English language

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around… language [is] an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.

  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.

In terms of writing professionally – letters, journalism and most other forms of non-fiction – Orwell’s rules are an excellent guide. When writing fiction, these rules should be carefully considered. There are times when breaking these rules may serve a greater good: for example, the passive voice is usually appropriate for academic writing; foreign words may provide context or flavour to the writing that an English equivalent lacks.

Just realised it’s 9:50 am. Having spent so much time on my ungraded Writing Professionally homework, I’d better get moving or I’ll miss my lecture. Plus I have actual graded assessments to complete. o.O

If you’re feeling all int-a-lecht-yew-al, please comment: I’d love to know what other people think.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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