A very interesting primer on the use of language is British author and critic George Orwell’s (of Animal Farm and 1984 fame) essay “Politics and the English Language.” In it, Orwell does what he does best – he criticizes those who use language in ways that cause it to sound dull, stale, and unclear, creating bad language habits. (I often wonder if that won’t be a problem as a teacher of English: bad language habits that die hard, as the proverb goes.) He also, in the good spirit of his most famous works, links politics and language (as one might guess from the title).

I recommend reading the essay in its entirety, but here are some dislocated thoughts of mine:


One very unsurprising aspect of language that Orwell criticizes is the Latinization of the English language to make it sound more intelligent. I’m particularly unsurprised because I do this quite frequently (even as far as the name of this blog!). Orwell says:

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.

He calls this pretentious, and I’m willing to admit that it is at least somewhat so. However, I don’t think this merely has to do with pretensions; I’ve seen the observation that the distinction between excremental words that are considered profane and those that are essentially euphemisms is that the former are Anglo-Saxon words and the latter Greek or Latinate (e.g. defecate, urinate). It’s not too incredible to think this somewhat prejudicial.

I grapple with what Orwell says here to various degrees: on the one hand, I think this sort of “pretentious” language is useful in certain contexts (e.g. it is easier to use terms like ‘epistemic’ or ‘ontological’ when talking about very specific topics within the realm of philosophy), but on the other, I acknowledge what Orwell is saying about this being somewhat political, something that is bound to occur with jargon or context-specific language.

Language as mental habit

Orwell makes an interesting claim:

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.

What is most interesting to me about this is the notion that the misuse of language is couched in language of virtue and vice (and the habits that accompany them). I think there is some truth in this, although there are aspects of the claim that I disagree with.

One such point of disagreement is the idea (expanded later) that bad writing happens easily, and hence easy writing is bad. (That’s somewhat of the idea, at least.) In other words, Orwell is explicitly saying that habits of language – for instance, using widely used or “stock” phrases – lead to bad writing. I say yes and no: they can lead to bad writing if their use reflects a lack of creativity or care in the writing, but such a habit does not necessitate poor writing.

I am also less than sure about what Orwell says concerning imagery. I do think that imagery is important: it evokes a tone and often an analogy in the language, and since language is representational – the mental association of abstract ideas with more concrete objects – the reader can experience the text through its imagery. Mixed metaphors then are to be avoided whenever possible: they only muck up the mental association by confusing incompatible images. But the converse is that the importance of imagery is the effect that the reader has; Orwell uses examples that either betray the original meaning (such as confusing the part of either in the image of “the hammer and the anvil”) or for which the original meaning is perhaps not known by the audience. Some of the examples are commonplace today and even very useful: Achilles’ heel, for a very notable one. I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater (see, there I’m doing it) here – fresh imagery is a great prescription, but there’s no need to dispense with useful phrases that evoke specific images.

The politics of Orwell’s rules of writing

Near the end of the essay, Orwell spells out six rules of writing:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never us 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.

Of those, four are negative in their construction, and only two are positive (the last of which bears further explanation). (i) is objectionable for reasons given above – if one avoids any figure which is common, then a valuable linguistic tool is abandoned for the sake of avoiding “staleness” (which can be avoided without this rule). (ii) also seems needlessly restrictive; there may well be cases where a shorter word can be used but where it would be less effective for a given purpose. (iv) and (v) also seem to suffer from the same problem as (ii): scientific and jargon words may have uses in certain types of writing (medical or scientific writing, for instance), which can be written in a way that is interesting, and passive voice is excellent when the focus of a normally transitive action is the action itself, not the subject performing the action.

On the other side, the positive (iii) is probably a good heuristic for the sake of simplicity, something that I agree is generally a virtue of good writing.

Finally, I am perplexed by (vi). It is the loophole that Orwell leaves himself, but it is a moment of utter vagueness in the midst of his very directed essay. And what does he mean by “outright barbarous”? Is this something that only certain individuals can gauge? What determines barbarity? I suggest that Orwell’s last rule bespeaks the very same sort of politic that he is speaking out against, and although he admits that he has very probably fallen victim to the same downfalls he is condemning (and it is evident that he does), it is still a great disappointment.

However, the essay seems as though it might have a good use.

“Politics…” and 1984

What seems perfectly obvious to me – although I am not aware that it happens very frequently – is that this essay deserves a place beside Orwell’s great dystopian novel, 1984.

The idea occurred to me when considering that I will be teaching 1984 during my student teaching in spring ’09, and this piece seems like a perfect way of killing two birds with one stone (if Orwell will posthumously permit that turn of phrase): discussing language in writing, turning the book into more than just a study of literature; and in the discussion of the book to flesh out Orwell’s view on language as he subtly (or not-so-subtly, depending on your perspective) inserts it into the writing itself. The latter purpose is especially useful as a way of integration, since Orwell’s dystopian society has so many linguistic elements: newspeak vs. oldspeak, for one, which seems to serve the express purpose of causing individuals not to think about what they say, which directly mirrors Orwell’s expressed view in this essay. It would not only give students a new perspective on language and how they use it, but it would further explain the linguistic elements in the novel! Frankly, it seems too brilliant for it to be original to me.

I do know that I’ll highly consider discussing this option with my cooperating teacher, who I think will be on board with inserting this into the discussion on the novel. Either way, it does give an interesting perspective, and that will be useful in teaching the novel regardless of its incorporation.