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June 3, 2013

Let the meaning choose the word: Orwell on political language

by quaesitor
George Orwell at the BBC

It has its gainsayers (eg Steven Poole is pretty disparaging, though unfairly in my view) but George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (the whole essay is online), is prophetic. Of course some of his linguistic concerns are matters of taste and fashion (as Steven Poole rightly notes). But written at the close of the Second World War, this article exposes the sham sincerity and dissembling motivation behind so much political speech and writing. That is the essay’s great virtue. And it has not gone out of date at all.

In fact, at times, all the ills he describes feel just like the script of Yes (Prime) Minister. You can hear both Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker on almost every page.

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. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality. (p8)

George Orwell - Politics and English LanguageWatch those metaphors. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of mixed metaphors because they can be the means of irony or absurdity. But Orwell is rightly tempered my enthusiasm.

The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. (p12)

This is probably the most famous part.

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.

… The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. (p14-15)

The cuttlefish was on overdrive during the Iraq War, for example. Chillingly bland military jargon has become commonplace: collateral damage, friendly fire, clean bombing (i.e. accurate), coercive interrogation (i.e. torture), soften up (i.e. bomb before ground invasion).

Iraq War protagonists

The essay ends with this paragraph.

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs. (p20)

But I’ll close with sentence that is perhaps key to the whole. It surely demands deep reflection from us all, but especially from those who ever have to utter or write words for the public square. And where people do not do this, we should be quick to call it out.

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. (p18)

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