Every time I've taught George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay on misleading, smudgy writing, “Politics and the English Language," to a group of undergraduates, we've delighted in pointing out the number of times Orwell violates his own rules—indulges some form of vague, “pretentious” diction, slips into unnecessary passive voice, etc. It’s a petty exercise, and Orwell himself provides an escape clause for his list of rules for writing clear English: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” But it has made us all feel slightly better for having our writing crutches pushed out from under us.
Orwell’s essay, writes the L.A. Times’ Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Michael Hiltzik, “stands as the finest deconstruction of slovenly writing since Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Where Twain’s essay takes on a pretentious academic establishment that unthinkingly elevates bad writing, “Orwell makes the connection between degraded language and political deceit (at both ends of the political spectrum).” With this concise description, Hiltzik begins his list of Orwell’s five greatest essays, each one a bulwark against some form of empty political language, and the often brutal effects of its “pure wind.”
One specific example of the latter comes next on Hiltzak’s list (actually a series he has published over the month) in Orwell’s 1949 essay on Gandhi. The piece clearly names the abuses of the imperial British occupiers of India, even as it struggles against the canonization of Gandhi the man, concluding equivocally that “his character was extraordinarily a mixed one, but there was almost nothing in it that you can put your finger on and call bad.” Orwell is less ambivalent in Hiltzak’s third choice, the spiky 1946 defense of English comic writer P.G. Wodehouse, whose behavior after his capture during the Second World War understandably baffled and incensed the British public. The last two essays on the list, “You and the Atomic Bomb” from 1945 and the early “A Hanging," published in 1931, round out Orwell's pre- and post-war writing as a polemicist and clear-sighted political writer of conviction. Find all five essays free online at the links below. And find some of Orwell's greatest works in our collection of Free eBooks.
1. "Politics and the English Language"
2. "Reflections on Gandhi"
3. "In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse"
4. "You and the Atomic Bomb"
5. "A Hanging"
George Orwell’s 1984: Free eBook, Audio Book & Study Resources
The Only Known Footage of George Orwell (Circa 1921)
George Orwell and Douglas Adams Explain How to Make a Proper Cup of Tea
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
The author discusses George Orwell and his essay “Politics and the English Language”.
In pop culture, George Orwell is known for the creation of the concept of Big Brother, which many people now relate to the reality TV show. While Orwell is best known for his books 1984 and Animal Farm, his essays have had an equally strong impact on the world of writing, literature, and journalism.
Funnily enough, for how famous Orwell seems to be, 1984, published in 1949, is number one on the list of books that people claim to have read but actually have not. It doesn’t shock me; 1984 is a difficult read, and the world of newspeak, thought crime, and telescreens seem very distant to us, even now. Despite this, the book has had such a big impact that people can pretend to have read it just because they already know so much about it. Just that much of the culture in the book has seeped into our everyday language.
Orwell wrote quite a lot about our everyday language. One of his most popular essays Politics and the English Language is a detailed description of the flaws in the everyday lingo (of that time, which was the 1940’s), and how that harms our society. Orwell was obsessed with politics; so much of what he wrote always had something to do with it. The essay highlights the decay of the proper usage of the English language in speech and especially in writing. He gives examples of bad writing, of writing that lacks creativity and imagination, and accuses several writers of using ready-made phrases to make it sound like they are saying something intelligible, but actually are not saying anything meaningful. He ends it with something to help us fight this decay and not succumb to it:
“(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
For any reader who has read even half of what Orwell has written, these are very confusing, mostly because Orwell’s own writing is filled with examples of things he wants us to avoid. In fact, even the essay itself (Politics and the English Language) presents examples of the use of passive voice, long words, and “foreign phrases”.
Of course, in literary language, all of these rules seem ridiculous, and he admits that this is only for political language. Language that is meant to convey a very specific meaning, not an effect, feeling, or emotion.
But that confines language so severely, and handicaps our ability to express so much, not only because it would take away words from our vocabulary, but also because it would change the way we express. If you tell people that every writing piece that is not literature can only express one meaning, that means there is only one way of looking at that writing, and that limits everything that makes language and writing fascinating.
When I read Orwell’s writings, I find myself relating to some of what he writes, and disagreeing with a lot. But you must remember that no writer with a collection of writing as Orwell would have all his opinions continuously consistent with each other. Just like painters, a writer’s style, techniques, perspectives, and opinions change over the years, and to be honest any who might not change may not be the best thinkers. And Orwell is no exception to that. But what he has never failed to offer is ideas, ideas to argue and think about and sleep over at night, wondering whether you are also one of the writers that just uses ready-made phrases from a selection of textbooks that you read. And you wonder if the evolution of language is really that bad of a thing, or if the usage of language should have rules put on it at all.
Orwell will never fail to offer you something to think about. This is why writers like him invent words that are used so popularly, because they make words for things and ideas that we did not even know existed.
As part of the 8th Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, in the video below David Crystal examines Orwell’s views about language and how he refers explicitly to linguistic topics in developing characters and plot, with narrations of different Orwell texts by Hilary Crystal and Ben Crystal.