Orwell stands up for the language

Picking up on my reference to Newspeak back on this post, a reader who prefers not to be named shares with us this essay by Orwell from 1946. It indeed hits on some of concerns I have about the way our language is abused for political purposes today. An excerpt:

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. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

What followed was a set of examples of bad writing, all of which made me self-conscious. A blogger is not a careful writer. Not this one, anyway. Not by the standards I embraced in the first three decades or so of my career. I defend myself by saying one can either be careful and precise (within the strictest definitions of those modifiers) or one can blog. Most of my posts are minor miracles in that I found the time to rip them out in stream-of-consciousness fashion. Careful thought is for print, or for a blog that only features new posts weekly or less often. I throw out ideas and stand ready to be corrected as I move on to others, always distracted as I simultaneously try to earn an honest living.

And I am intimidated especially because my respect for Orwell’s mastery of the language is so complete. For much of my adulthood, I remembered reading both 1984 and Brave New World in my youth, and placed them roughly in the same category — similarly nightmarish (although opposite, one of them imagining Stalinism triumphant, the other projecting extreme consumerism) dystopias, exhibiting roughly similar levels of literary quality. I was wrong. I read them both within the last few years, and was startled by what a masterful writer Orwell was, and how unremarkable Huxley’s prose was by comparison.

I cringed at what Orwell would say about the words I carelessly thrust at my public like a stoker shoveling so much coal. I was somewhat encouraged to read his own confession of insecurity: “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.” But I did not for a moment fool myself; I am not Orwell’s equal. But I am his ally in detesting certain sins against the language committed in the service of politics. Another excerpt:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

It is indeed my goal at all times to be “some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line.'” And I constantly decry the “lifeless, imitative style” found in the expression of “(o)rthodoxy, of whatever color.” I am not Orwell’s equal in the use of language, but I do feel qualified to decry the pap that parties put out.

Let us end by savoring the way Orwell ended his piece:

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. 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.

Note, among many other things, his implied assumption — as a lover of language — that “Conservatives” and “Anarchists” stand in opposition to each other. He certainly should believe that; I always have. The next time I hear a would-be “conservative” abuse the very idea of government, I will remember Orwell’s words, and feel a certain kinship.

30 thoughts on “Orwell stands up for the language

  1. Ralph Hightower

    I read many technical blogs on computer programming because I need to in order to keep my technical skills up to date. I realize that bloggers don’t have editors to review to make sure that grammar and spelling is correct like book authors have with publishing companies. But it bothers me some reading articles on the web that have grammatical or spelling mistakes. I can excuse the mistakes if it appears that English is a second language for the blogger. But when English is their first language, I think that they should have caught their mistakes.

  2. bud

    I defend myself by saying one can either be careful and precisely ..

    Should that be “careful and precise”.

  3. bud

    The language evolves and I don’t have a problem with the current use of the term “conservative” provided most people accept and understand what it means. Now the term “common sense conservative” has me baffled.

  4. Brad

    And Ralph — yes, we SHOULD catch our mistakes. The editor in me, the one who makes up such a large and demanding portion of my character, insists that there are no excuses for letting a mistake get to the reader.

    But I’m faced with an inconvenient truth: I am one of the most obsessive editors I have ever known. (While other editors sent internal e-mails in ee cummings lower case and without punctuation, liberally sprinkled with misspellings by which they advertised the fact that they were SO busy they didn’t have time to be precise, I carefully edited everything I sent out, in the interest of upholding precision in all aspects of the job.) And yet I make many intolerable errors on the blog. It’s a function of the fact that I didn’t have time to start on the blasted post to begin with, and the pressure on me to turn to something else builds throughout the time it takes to write it, to the point that I hit “Publish” and run as soon as the last word is typed. And if I don’t do that, I just don’t post at all.

    Blogging is a pursuit that contains many contradictions. I can either spend time having experiences and doing research that makes for informative posts, or I can blog. On the days when I collect a lot of good stuff to write about, I’m too busy to blog and the stuff dies before I get to it.

    And I can either be careful and precise, or blog. The tensions between these factors is considerable. And I’ve had to accept living with them to keep doing this…

  5. Doug Ross

    I was going to threaten to not write any more comments until you provide an edit button (or delete) but then I think you would take me up on that.

    I tend toward speed over accuracy and I’m a lousy typist. 40 wpm forward and 20 backward.

    As for political commentary, I am often more interested in what political bloggers avoid writing about. On a rightwing blog like The Corner at National Review, it’s funny how long it takes sometimes for certain topics to be addressed when they make the conservative view look bad.

  6. Karen McLeod

    Ah, but with a blog, one has to respond to so many different points of view that sooner or later one clarifies any point that might have been imprecise.

  7. Phillip

    Brad, I would never accuse you of being a “hack” to use Orwell’s term, but…since you did bring up Orwell, I feel naturally duty-bound to point out, yet again, that his line about “mechanically repeating the familiar phrases” makes me immediately think about “War on Terror,” a phrase that was repeated so unthinkingly in our country for most of the last decade that I believe it’s actually shaped our thinking and policy, and not in a good way. I can’t think of another phrase in our American political discourse of the last 10 years that fits Orwell’s description of a “reduced state of consciousness” more precisely.

  8. Jesse S.

    Off the top of my head, Orwell was the only person who focused the English language toward no particular reading level. A 10 year old and a 90 year old could, likely, read any of those excerpts without any trouble. That is no small feat. Cognitevly, it is downright jarring.

    If he wrote manuals, everyone could have programmed a VCR.

    The only other writer with that level of skill (that I can think of) was Nabokov, a man who could make the reader smell and taste with the power of the pen.

    Then again, Nabokov had a brain disorder and Orwell survived nightmares I don’t want to imagine.

    As far as the “conservative” issue. I wouldn’t doubt that we’ll drive that term over the cliff one of these days.

  9. Joanne

    Awesome. My AP Language class just did this essay a few weeks ago and had to write on it. I’ll tell them you cited it.

  10. Nick Nielsen

    That happens everywhere, Doug. Very few people have the guts to take on something that threatens their opinions of themselves.

  11. bud

    Phillip, your point about the “War on Terror” is excellent. I’ve thought of that before but you (and Orwell) expressed it better than I could have.

  12. Brad

    Actually, it would be interesting to see what Orwell would have had to say about how the READER takes in political language, as well as how the writer uses it.

    I say that because I continue to be puzzled at the way anti-war folks viscerally reject the term “War on Terror,” and insist on speaking of “two wars” rather than seeing the connection.

    Me, I’m a big connections guy. I see the connections between all these entities that want to drag Islam, and the world, to their imagined vision of the Middle Ages (actually, in those days, Islam was a model of tolerance, for the times, but that’s not what THEY seek), and the overarching conflict between them and the 21st-century West — which includes Israel, Japan and other modern nations aside from the traditional West.

    There’s no better, clearer, more concise way to describe that conflict, from the Western perspective, than “War on Terror” — that is, if you are willing to confront that challenge with determination. If you are NOT, if you want to wish it away or ignore it, then I suppose the term really bothers you.

    But let’s set aside our political difference regarding the term, and examine it as a use of language. In that sense, this doesn’t fit into category of abuse of language that offended Orwell. It’s evocative and to the point. It doesn’t muck about with polysyllabic dithering. It doesn’t attempt to wash the power out of language or limit expression.

    In fact, it’s one of the better names for a war in our history. Far better than the lame attempts at inspiring propaganda that characterized the 1991 conflict with Iraq. Desert Storm? Please. The term used for the 2003 invasion was similarly offensive in an Orwellian sense: Operation Enduring Freedom? Gag a maggot.

    But “War on Terror” states the case. Anti-war folks get all worked up because terror is a tactic or strategy, not an enemy. But that’s precisely why it works. It cuts through the problem that we are not fighting nations, that we are dealing with many different non-national actors and other entities interlocked in complex ways, and states what we’re against. I mean, if we can stop terrorism, we don’t much care what these people do, do we?

    It answers a question that no other name for a war in our history ever addressed specifically: Why We Fight.

    By comparison, “the Civil War” was terribly lame. It’s so generic. What it was was a War on Secession, but I guess that never caught on.

    Anyway, I appreciate that y’all would want to enlist Orwell on this point, but I don’t think it even begins to be an example of what he was on about.

  13. Doug Ross

    If we’re fighting a war against “terror”, then we cannot win it. Terror will always be there.

    Apparently we defeated terror in Iraq because we aren’t fighting the “War on Terror” there any more. Hooray! Terror no longer exists in Iraq! Wait, what? What was that explosion?

    The “War on Terror” should be properly named “The War To Keep the Military-Industrial Complex Profitable”. If there isn’t a real war, we’ll create one.

    Seriously – how much “terror” have you felt since 9/11? How much of your day is spent worrying about another attack? How much killing in Afghanistan will actually stop it from happening again?

  14. bud

    Brad is attempting to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with his defense of the utterly deplorable and mis-named “War on Terror”. Simply put, the various miliary incursions, especially in Iraq, have absolutely nothing to do with fighting terrorists. So to include these events in some all-encompassing “war” is not only a grotesque misuse of the language it’s a travesty to one’s intellect.

    A better term for these wars would be something like “war to appropriate massive quantities of oil” or “war to avenge honor of POTUS dad”. But what is really gauling about the “war on terror” phrase is how totally inaccurate it is grammatically. We cannot wage war on this concept any more than we can wage a war against “hate” or “bigotry”. The folks who would use terror tactics would not even acknowledge their tactics are acts of terror.

    Simply put, the war on terror is (1) inaccurate, (2) misleading and (3) insulting. And it’s typical of the way conservatives misuse the language to market their bad ideas. I say it’s time to wage a war on idiocy. At least we’d have a visible enemy – conservatives.

  15. Phillip

    1) One of the problems with “War on Terror” and precisely the reason why is DOES fall under the Orwellian category is because those who question its blanket use usually then get accused of wanting to “wish away or ignore” the very real threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. The leap to that assumption right there should be a screaming red flag to any detached observer that “War on Terror” is not at all precise, or merely descriptive: it is a political slogan that serves as a signifier. As someone who writes often of the value of “thinking” over “emotion,” you surely should appreciate that use of the phrase “War on Terror” is meant to STOP thought and rational analysis, not stimulate it. That, and that alone, is why folks like me never stop calling out people who use that phrase.

    2) who are the “anti-war” folks you keep speaking of? Are all those who question this phrase pacifists? Hardly. Can’t one support military action against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban without resorting to this blank check for war? Lumping together all those who happen to question what this phrase really means is, again, a pretty good sign that it is hardly an innocently descriptive phrase, but a political slogan.

    3) the reason why WOT (or GWOT) is conducive to Orwell’s “reduced state of consciousness… favorable to political conformity” is because then it provides political cover for roping in all sorts of geopolitical goals that may or may not be related to the most direct threat. (Not to mention our detour into things like torture, extraordinary rendition, even erosions of domestic civil liberties). For example, “all these entities” that you describe as wishing to drag Islam and world into the Middle Ages certainly could obviously not have included Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

    4) Most damaging to America’s national psyche is the fact that this phrase makes the nation think it can eliminate all threat, whereas you cannot of course ever win a “War on Terror,” because the nature of terrorism is such that even a totally dominant military power will always be susceptible to attack in an open society. A “WOT” then indeed means a war with absolutely no end in sight.

    The alternative is not adopting one of the military operation names that we agree are silly. Why must we give it any name or label? WOT is not precise, because we are not really actively fighting terrorism in all its manifestations worldwide under the banner of whatever cause. It is a slogan, and even though I’ll grant that you (and maybe Tony Blair) have adopted it with more thought than most who fling it about so casually, I think in time it will be seen to have been just as Orwellian and absurd as phrases like “domino theory,” which at least had the good sense to have “theory” in its name.

  16. Brad

    Yeah, it’s nice having Tony on my side on this. Because I guarantee you that NO ONE has thought it out more thoroughly than Tony.

    That’s why, when we got rolling on all this right after 9/11, I expressed the wish that if we must go to war, can’t Tony be in charge of the whole thing?

    It was so frustrating having the Brits be the junior partners, when Tony articulated what it was all about so brilliantly, and W. could hardly put two coherent sentences together. Being able to state clearly what we’re fighting for is an essential element of leadership. Tony could (and still can) do it; W. never could. OK, wait — he DID do it in a couple of well-written speeches. But he couldn’t do it day after day, and that’s essential.

    Of course, he does get some sympathy from me because I know that even if he had spoken as brilliantly as Tony, some people would still believe such things as this is “to appropriate massive quantities of oil” or whatever. (It so obviously was not. The 1991 war was about restoring the status quo ante bellum in order that the oil continue to flow. This one was about upsetting the status quo and not giving a damn what it did to the oil or anything else. Which is why a lot of people criticize it. It was not, in the elder Bush’s argot, “prudent.”)

    The horrible thing is that the ideological divide is so deep now that no matter how articulate the leader, there are people who will hear “black” when he says “white.” (Don’t believe me, liberals? Check out the way the Tea Partisans won’t hear a word Obama says, despite his eloquence.) In such a poisonous atmosphere, it is extremely difficult to accomplish any difficult task as a nation — whether to win a war (hell, we can’t even agree that it IS a war) or establish a rational health care system.

  17. Brad

    Oh, and Phillip — no, one would not expect a War on Terror to be over at any time in the foreseeable future. It would be a generational struggle, at least. We’re talking about shifting megatrends in history here, which puts us more in the category of the 30 Years War or more.

    But we didn’t choose this struggle. It chose us. We can’t say, “Let’s not fight this one. Let’s wait for a nice war to come along with a nice exit strategy.” That’s ridiculous. As the Fremen would say (if the Fremen existed), “Be prepared to appreciate what you meet.” Yeah, it’s science fiction, but I always thought that was wise advice.

  18. Kathryn Fenner

    Because, having finished with the Cold War, another “war” had to be found.

    There will always be terrorists. Like the poor, they will be with us. We can try to reduce terrorism, by peaceful and by belligerent means. I daresay fighting fire with fire is not always very effective.Being terrorizing ourselves, as many residents of Iraq and Afghanistan can attest to, seems to create more terrorists than it cures.

  19. bud

    It would be a generational struggle, at least. We’re talking about shifting megatrends in history here, which puts us more in the category of the 30 Years War or more.

    Tell us how the 30 years war made life for the people of Europe better? I wouldn’t use a historical comparison unless it actually buttressed your argument. Seems like this one undermines it.

  20. bud

    Specifically, here’s what Wiki has to say about the “benefits” of the 30 years war:

    “A major impact of the Thirty Years War was the extensive destruction of entire regions, denuded by the foraging armies (bellum se ipsum alet). Episodes of famine and disease significantly decreased the populace of the German states, Bohemia, the Low Countries and Italy, while bankrupting most of the combatant powers.”

  21. bud

    Just do what we did after WWII in Germany

    No need for me to read any further. I’ve loooong ago rejected any comparison with that conflict null and void.

  22. Brad

    Um… I wasn’t aware that I was saying the 30 Years War was a good thing. To me, it was just a reflection of the insanity of the times, dealing with issues and motives and priorities that are a bit hard to identity with today.

    I was referring, of course, to the period of time. I would have said “Hundred Years War,” but I thought it would freak you out too much.

    And now, before you catch another ball I did not throw, let me say that I am not recommending the Hundred Years War, the specific event in history, as an experience we want to repeat. Once again, I’m simply referring to the fact that we are not talking about a simple Clausewitzian conflict that ends after a few key battles. We’re talking about a struggle that will take profound economic, cultural, societal change in the countries that tend to crank out Islamist terrorists. Basically, a generation needs to rise up that sees itself as having better things to do that blow itself up in order to kill infidels.

    Until the conditions are right for that, the struggle continues. That’s why nation-building is such a key part of it, and why the Bush administration had so much trouble getting the job done — because it was conflicted about nation-building. The basic idea about Iraq, for example, was pretty straightforward — break it down (in the sense of eliminating the Baathist deathgrip on the country) and build it back up into something more likely to get along with the rest of the world. Not easy, but a pretty clear concept. Just do what we did after WWII in Germany and Japan. You may have noticed that those countries, once in the grip of fascist, imperialistic regimes, a threat to all their neighbors, haven’t caused trouble lately. But even then, when you were dealing with modern states that understood what the term “surrender” meant, it took a long time to get the job done. And we still have military bases in Germany and Japan.

    The need for a long-term presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is so much greater, which is why all this deadline-setting for getting out is so crazy. But apart from the politics in this country that militate against a long-term presence, there is the problem of the way we went into those countries. With Germany and Japan, we had a huge military force fully occupying completely subjugated nations after an all-out war.

    With Iraq and Afghanistan, we were never at war with the countries, and therefore have never been conquerors and never have actually occupied the countries. Which makes the rebuilding tough. Add to that the fact that we’re up against non-Clausewitzian opponents who don’t understand the concept of surrender, and you have a situation that should take longer to get in hand than what we faced in 1945 after total victory.

    So yeah, bottom line, we have a long haul ahead, and no one should have at any point have expected this to be a quick in-and-out thing. As I indicated the very month we went into Iraq, in my “Rubicon” column.

  23. bud

    On second thought why not discuss this. Let’s start with Germany. The Nazis were in control for a scant 12 years until the German nation was beaten into submission. I doubt very many of the people in that nation had any zeal for a Nazi comeback. They had been a nation basically for only about 75 years following Bismarck’s unification of the various mini-states so even within that context Germany was a new nation in 1945 and probably pretty willing to move on from the horrors of 2 world wars.

    That situation is vastly different from that which exists in the middle east. The Muslim people have been united in by there religioun since the middle-ages. They view our occupation of any nation in the region as an act of aggression and as such the radicals can justify terrorist acts as merely acts of war. Given the short duration of the Nazi regime the people of post WW II Germany just did not have time to form that same level of fervant support.

    As for Japan, they are a very high-strung people who give their all to a particular cause. In WW II they identified with the propaganda elements espoused by the militaristic rulers. Thery were essentially brain-washed (Tea Party style). Once the military was exposed for the zealots that they were the people (and the Americans wisely chose to allow them to keep their most important symbol, the emperor) the Japanese people were more than willing to restructure their lives within a peaceful, economic juggernaut.

    Those situations are flat-out not the same as a loose-knit organization of religious zealots who view our occupation of middle-eastern nations as an affront to thier way of life, a way of life established over many centuries. And really, they have a point. That’s not to justify the terrorist acts that they pull off but doesn’t it just make sense that if we had no troops in the region they would have far, far less incentive to destroy us? Sure seems obvious to me.

  24. bud

    So what the pro-war folks want us to do is continue war making for 30 years against a people who pose us no harm. To support this we are offered the analogy of a long-ago war that brought economic collapse and famine to millions of Europeans and an occupation of two nations that are vastly different from the two we strive to occupy today. The war-mongers continue to trot out vapid, empty excuses to continue with the carnage and disasterous spending (at a time of trillion dollar deficits) that can only lead to a decline of our great nation. We cannot allow this to happen and if we give the GOP the keys back to the nation’s government we may never get out of the quagmire that we are engulfed in. Folks should remember why Bush became so unpopular. It was a combination of economic failure AND foreign policy bravado.

  25. Brad

    So… your argument is that the Shiites and Sunnis are UNITED by a common religion, huh? And that Iraq, a country cobbled together by former colonial masters in 1926, has a single, unified, sort of fellow-feeling that exceeds the nationalism of the Germans? And that of the Japanese?


  26. Brad

    And where on Earth do antiwar people come up with such notions as “continue war making for 30 years against a people who pose us no harm”? I mean, really? Yeah, I propose that we fight as long as it takes against the Taliban and al Qaeda — and when they assert themselves violently, the Baathists and the Sadrists and the various other factions that pose a threat to the ordinary people of Iraq.

    But who these people we’re fighting are “who pose us no harm,” well… I’m just at a loss. I can’t think of any enemy combatants who fit that description.

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