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Essay on Politics and the English Language

August 10th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The language of politics is one that is universal to all languages. In 1948, George Orwell published an essay entitled Politics and the English Language, which discussed just that. In paragraph 21 of this essay, he claims, “political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind.” This is absolutely right, it was in Orwell’s time, and it still holds true today, in a time of mass media, corporate influence, and colossal magnitudes of sensationalism. I plan to explain what Orwell meant by “political language” and show how those who misuse it to their advantage can get away with blatantly lying, yet still amassing support of the misled.

Right at the beginning of his essay, Orwell claims civilization to be decadent and therein infers that civilization’s language must be decadent as well. This is an interesting point that I did not agree with until I finished the reading. Orwell then goes on to explain, “The decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” which is definitely true. Keep in mind that his essay was written in 1946, shortly after World War II had ended, so he is speaking from a time where nearly everyone in the world knew of society’s evils. In addition, throughout the essay, Orwell uses exceptionally strong expressions to describe the current state of the English language by using the analogy of a downtrodden individual succumbing to alcoholism, and then referring to the “slovenliness” of Modern English, explicitly written English… However, Orwell also claims that this same slovenliness of the English language can be reversed…

Now in his extremely well written essay, Orwell makes it extremely clear about what needs to be done to preserve proper English in writing. His first step in doing such was to show various examples of what he refers to as “specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.” Interestingly enough, he quotes the work of two of the world’s most educated people (he quotes two professors), two miscellaneous publications, and even Karl Marx himself. With these five examples, there are five different things wrong with each. The first example, which is from an essay by Professor Harold Laski, is erroneous in the eyes of Orwell due to its ambiguity and its capability to confuse. The second example is from a writing by Professor Lancelot Hogben, and Orwell mocks this writing in a humorous fashion, by turning the statement around to ridicule it, due to the fact that the word “egregious” is apparently misused. Example number three is from an essay on psychology, and Orwell again takes a sarcastic tone by calling it meaningless. The fourth quote is from Karl Marx’s Communist Pamphlet, and Orwell criticizes it for its usage of “stale phrases.” Finally, the fifth example of bad English that Orwell cites is from a miscellaneous letter in Tribune and he criticizes it for its use of large words but lack of meaning. The majority of these claims by Orwell are definitely significant, although I think he happens to overreact in the case of Karl Marx’s Communist Pamphlet, because it is undoubtedly personal preference that decides what a “stale phrase” is.

Orwell specifically combats four vices in writing in his essay. These vices are dying metaphors, operators, pretentious diction (mainly the overuse of foreign phrases), and meaningless words. Dying metaphors are also known as clich?s. In both Orwell’s opinion and my opinion, these are a blatant form of a lack of creativity, and are sometimes brutally misused. They are serious vices that plague what in many times are excellent pieces of writing or speech, but they just lack flair. Orwell is definitely justified in his argument against these. Operators are phrases consisting of many words that can be replaced by much fewer words. Even the best writers today are guilty of using these, and I actually prefer using some operators, because in my opinion, they can add flair to a piece of writing. Maybe this is because Orwell wrote his essay in 1946, and what he was saying about the decadence of the language was true, or it may just be a difference of opinion. Pretentious diction is mainly the overuse of foreign phrases and jargon, which have the capability of misleading and confusing the reader. In most cases, pretentious diction can be avoided easily, but sometimes it is necessary, such as in Karl Marx’s Communist Pamphlet. This is why I think Orwell’s earlier condemnation of the Communist Pamphlet was unjust and a big excessive. Finally, meaningless words are exactly as they read, meaningless. Orwell explains how many political words are viciously overused to the point where their meaning is lost, which leads to authorities such as the government and the media to mislead and deceive the public by using these words. I fully agree with this point that Orwell brings forth. This is a major way that propaganda works. You can see this taking place today in the media and even in the school system. The blatant overuse of the word “democracy,” when they attempt to label the American government as such is a great example. No one defines this word in the same manner, yet everyone uses it. In my opinion, the American government is not a democracy because we currently have a war-mongering president that was not even elected by the people, though the next man may out rightly disagree with me. It is things like this that definitely do ruin the fluidity and effectiveness of words in a language, and preventing this is a great way to prevent such authoritative attempts at deception.

Also in his essay, Orwell provided excellent ways for writers to ensure that their writing follows the guidelines of what he calls proper English. According to Orwell, careful writers should subconsciously use the following process of thoughts to make sure that their writing is optimal. “What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?” He then proceeds to sarcastically bash the trend of how most people write nowadays, and it took me a few reads to even realize the cynicism. When he returns to seriousness, Orwell proceeds to explain that most political language is plain out bad writing, because modern politics usually consists of near to total orthodoxy. He proceeds to say that when political language is unusually good, it is when the writer is rebellious against the conventional orthodoxy, which contains misleading phrases in order to justify party lines. This is exceptionally true in today’s political world, as well as in his time.

Orwell also out rightly criticized the political language that the world’s leaders of his time (1948) would use to justify their positions. He illustrates the true blatancy of how governments use meaningless words to justify their points, which they know would not go over well with the people, by deception. This is known as the “inflated style.” Included in the text is a perfect example of this inflated style and how easy it is to manipulate language in a way that can be used to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes in such an inhumanely easy fashion. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. “He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.’ Probably, therefore, he will say something like this: ‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’” This is very similar to today’s media, sensationalizing every world event and causing mass hysteria. I live in the metropolitan area of New York City, and on the news on television, they constantly talk about the possibility of a biological terrorist attack on the city. As ridiculous as this seems, they attempt to advise the people to be safe with tips like buying duct tape and plastic drop cloths to cover the windows of their homes. With the way I just described what is said on these propaganda programs, this sounds like the most disastrous and ridiculous thing to be suggested in ages, but obviously they use much different words and language than I have used to explain this situation.

In conclusion, I believe that I have successfully shown how important political language truly is. It shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that is extremely easy for those in power to mislead, lie, and sensationalize, and get away with it scot-free, due to their manipulation of the language, especially in today’s world, where many people are completely apathetic about politics. It is my goal in life to raise the political consciousness of the masses so that our voters will not be so na?ve when it comes to such issues.
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