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.