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George Orwell > Politics and the English Language > Essay

Politics and the English Language

Essay


Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the
English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we
cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is
decadent, and our language--so the argument runs--must inevitably share
in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse
of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to
electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the
half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an
instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

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 towards 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.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially
bad--I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen--but because they
illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are
a little below the average, but are fairly representative samples. I
number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:


(1) I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton
who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become,
out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien (sic) to
the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to
tolerate.
         PROFESSOR HAROLD LASKI (Essay in FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION)

(2) Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of
idioms which prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables as the
Basic PUT UP WITH for TOLERATE or PUT AT A LOSS for BEWILDER.
         PROFESSOR LANCELOT HOGBEN (INTERGLOSSA)

(3) On the one side we have the free personality; by definition it is not
neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as
they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval
keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern
would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is
natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But ON THE OTHER SIDE, the
social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these
self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the
very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of
mirrors for either personality or fraternity?
         Essay on psychology in POLITICS (New York)

(4) All the "best people" from the gentlemen's clubs, and all the frantic
fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror
of the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to
acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of
poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian
organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoisie to chauvinistic
fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the
crisis.
         Communist pamphlet

(5) If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one
thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the
humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak
canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may lee sound and of
strong beat, for instance, but the British lion's roar at present is like
that of Bottom in Shakespeare's MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM--as gentle as any
sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be
traduced in the eyes, or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors
of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as "standard English." When the
Voice of Britain is heard at nine o'clock, better far and infinitely less
ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish,
inflated, inhibited, school-ma'am-ish arch braying of blameless bashful
mewing maidens.
         Letter in TRIBUNE


Each of these passages has faults of its own, but quite apart from
avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is
staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either
has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something
else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything
or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most
marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind
of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete
melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech
that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of WORDS chosen for
the sake of their meaning, and more and more of PHRASES tacked together
like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes
and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of
prose-construction is habitually dodged:


DYING METAPHORS. A newly-invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a
visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically
"dead" (e.g., IRON RESOLUTION) has in effect reverted to being an
ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in
between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors
which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save
people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are:
RING THE CHANGES ON, TAKE UP THE CUDGELS FOR, TOE THE LINE, RIDE
ROUGHSHOD OVER, STAND SHOULDER TO SHOULDER WITH, PLAY INTO THE HANDS OF,
AN AXE TO GRIND, GRIST TO THE MILL, FISHING IN TROUBLED WATERS, ON THE
ORDER OF THE DAY, ACHILLES' HEEL, SWAN SONG, HOTBED. Many of these are
used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for
instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign
that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors
now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those
who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, TOE THE LINE is
sometimes written TOW THE LINE. Another example is THE HAMMER AND THE
ANVIL, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst
of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never
the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying
would be aware of this, and would avoid perverting the original phrase.

OPERATORS, or VERBAL FALSE LIMBS. These save the trouble of picking out
appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with
extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic
phrases are: RENDER INOPERATIVE, MILITATE AGAINST, PROVE UNACCEPTABLE,
MAKE CONTACT WITH, BE SUBJECTED TO, GIVE RISE TO, GIVE GROUNDS FOR,
HAVING THE EFFECT OF, PLAY A LEADING PART (RÔLE) IN, MAKE ITSELF FELT,
TAKE EFFECT, EXHIBIT A TENDENCY TO, SERVE THE PURPOSE OF, etc., etc. The
keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single
word, such as BREAK, STOP, SPOIL, MEND, KILL, a verb becomes a PHRASE,
made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb as
PROVE, SERVE, FORM, PLAY, RENDER. In addition, the passive voice is
wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun
constructions are used instead of gerunds (BY EXAMINATION OF instead of
BY EXAMINING). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the
'-IZE' AND 'DE-' formations, and banal statements are given an appearance
of profundity by means of the NOT 'UN-' formation. Simple conjunctions and
prepositions are replaced by such phrases as WITH RESPECT TO, HAVING
REGARD TO, THE FACT THAT, BY DINT OF, IN VIEW OF, IN THE INTERESTS OF, ON
THE HYPOTHESIS THAT; and the ends of sentences are saved from anti-climax
by such resounding commonplaces as GREATLY TO BE DESIRED, CANNOT BE LEFT
OUT OF ACCOUNT, A DEVELOPMENT TO BE EXPECTED IN THE NEAR FUTURE,
DESERVING OF SERIOUS CONSIDERATION, BROUGHT TO A SATISFACTORY CONCLUSION,
and so on and so forth.

PRETENTIOUS DICTION. Words like PHENOMENON, ELEMENT, INDIVIDUAL (as
noun), OBJECTIVE, CATEGORICAL, EFFECTIVE, VIRTUAL, BASIS, PRIMARY,
PROMOTE, CONSTITUTE, EXHIBIT, EXPLOIT, UTILIZE, ELIMINATE, LIQUIDATE, are
used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific
impartiality to biased judgments. Adjectives like EPOCH-MAKING, EPIC,
HISTORIC, UNFORGETTABLE, TRIUMPHANT, AGE-OLD, INEVITABLE, INEXORABLE,
VERITABLE, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international
politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an
archaic color, its characteristic words being: REALM, THRONE, CHARIOT,
MAILED FIST, TRIDENT, SWORD, SHIELD, BUCKLER, BANNER, JACKBOOT, CLARION.
Foreign words and expressions such as CUL DE SAC, ANCIEN RÉGIME, DEUS EX
MACHINA, MUTATIS MUTANDIS, STATUS QUO, GLEICHSCHALTUNG, WELTANSCHAUUNG,
are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful
abbreviations I.E., E.G., and ETC., there is no real need for any of the
hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. 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, SUB-AQUEOUS and hundreds of others
constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers. [Note 1, below]
The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (HYENA, HANGMAN, CANNIBAL, PETTY
BOURGEOIS, THESE GENTRY, LACKEY, FLUNKEY, MAD DOG, WHITE GUARD, etc.)
consists largely of words and phrases translated from Russian, German or
French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or
Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the '-ize'
formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind
(DE-REGIONALIZE, IMPERMISSIBLE, EXTRAMARITAL, NON-FRAGMENTARY and so
forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning.
The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.


[Note: 1. An interesting illustration of this is the way in which the English
flower names which were in use till very recently are being ousted by
Greek ones, SNAPDRAGON becoming ANTIRRHINUM, FORGET-ME-NOT becoming
MYOSOTIS, etc. It is hard to see any practical reason for this change of
fashion: it is probably due to an instinctive turning-away from the more
homely word and a vague feeling that the Greek word is scientific.
(Author's footnote.)]


MEANINGLESS WORDS. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art
criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long
passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. [Note, below] Words
like ROMANTIC, PLASTIC, VALUES, HUMAN, DEAD, SENTIMENTAL, NATURAL, VITALITY,
as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that
they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly
even expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, "The
outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality," while another
writes, "The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its
peculiar deadness," the reader accepts this as a simple difference of
opinion If words like BLACK and WHITE were involved, instead of the
jargon words DEAD and LIVING, he would see at once that language was
being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused.
The word FASCISM has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies
"something not desirable." The words DEMOCRACY, SOCIALISM, FREEDOM,
PATRIOTIC, REALISTIC, JUSTICE, have each of them several different
meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a
word like DEMOCRACY, not only is there no agreed definition, but the
attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally
felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it:
consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a
democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it
were tied down to any one meaning. 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.


[Note: Example: "Comfort's catholicity of perception and image, strangely
Whitmanesque in range, almost the exact opposite in aesthetic compulsion,
continues to evoke that trembling atmospheric accumulative hinting at a
cruel, an inexorably serene timelessness . . . Wrey Gardiner scores by
aiming at simple bullseyes with precision. Only they are not so simple,
and through this contented sadness runs more than the surface bittersweet
of resignation." (POETRY QUARTERLY.) (Author's footnote.)]


Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me
give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time
it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a
passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a
well-known verse from ECCLESIASTES:


    I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor
the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches
to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and
chance happeneth

Here it is in modern English:

    Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion
that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to
be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of
the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3), above, for
instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will
be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending
of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the
middle the concrete illustrations--race, battle, bread--dissolve into the
vague phrase "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to
be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing--no one
capable of using phrases like "objective consideration of contemporary
phenomena"--would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed
way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now
analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains 49
words but only 60 syllables, and all its words are those of everyday
life. The second contains 38 words of 90 syllables: 18 of its words are
from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six
vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be
called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase,
and in spite of its 90 syllables it gives only a shortened version of the
meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind
of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to
exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of
simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if
you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human
fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence
than to the one from ECCLESIASTES.

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in
picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in
order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long
strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and
making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this
way of writing, is that it is easy. It is easier--even quicker, once you
have the habit--to say IN MY OPINION IT IS A NOT UNJUSTIFIABLE ASSUMPTION
THAT than to say I THINK. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only
don't have to hunt about for words; you also don't have to bother with
the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so
arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a
hurry--when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making
a public speech--it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized
style. Tags like A CONSIDERATION WHICH WE SHOULD DO WELL TO BEAR IN MIND
OR A CONCLUSION TO WHICH ALL OF US WOULD READILY ASSENT will save many a
sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes
and idioms, you save much mental effort at the cost of leaving your
meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the
significance of mixed metaphors. 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. Look
again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Professor
Laski (1) uses five negatives in 53 words. One of these is superfluous,
making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip
ALIEN for akin, making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of
clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2)
plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write
prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase PUT UP
WITH, is unwilling to look EGREGIOUS up in the dictionary and see what it
means. (3), if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply
meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading
the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4), the writer knows
more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases
chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink. In (5), words and meaning
have almost parted company. People who write in this manner usually have
a general emotional meaning--they dislike one thing and want to express
solidarity with another--but they are not interested in the detail of
what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he
writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 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? And he will
probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said
anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all
this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and
letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your
sentences for you--even think your thoughts for you, to a certain
extent-and at need they will perform the important service of partially
concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the
special connection between politics and the debasement of language
becomes clear.

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 under-secretaries do, of
course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one
almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made 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 towards 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.

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
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.
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 régime 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.


The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words
falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering
up all the details. 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 squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as
"keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics
itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When
the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to
find--this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to
verify--that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all
deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years as a result of
dictatorship.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A
bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who
should and do know better. The debased language that I have been
discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like A NOT
UNJUSTIFIABLE ASSUMPTION, LEAVES MUCH TO BE DESIRED, WOULD SERVE NO GOOD
PURPOSE, A CONSIDERATION WHICH WE SHOULD DO WELL TO BEAR IN MIND, are a
continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow. 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. By this
morning's post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in
Germany. The author tells me that he "felt impelled" to write it. I open
it at random, and here is almost the first sentence that I see:
"[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical
transformation of Germany's social and political structure in such a way
as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same
time of laying the foundations of a cooperative and unified Europe." You
see, he "feels impelled" to write--feels, presumably, that he has
something new to say--and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering
the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary
pattern. This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases (LAY THE
FOUNDATIONS, ACHIEVE A RADICAL TRANSFORMATION) can only be prevented if
one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase
anesthetizes a portion of one's brain.

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable.
Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all,
that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we
cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and
constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes,
this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and
expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process
but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were
EXPLORE EVERY AVENUE and LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED, which were killed by
the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of fly-blown
metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would
interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh
the NOT 'UN-' formation out of existence, [Note, below] to reduce the amount
of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases and
strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness
unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defense of the English
language implies more than this, and perhaps it is best to start by
saying what it does NOT imply.

[Note: One can cure oneself of the NOT 'UN-' formation by memorizing this
sentence: A NOT UNBLACK DOG WAS CHASING A NOT UNSMALL RABBIT ACROSS A NOT
UNGREEN FIELD. (Author's footnote.)]

To begin with, it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of
obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting-up of a
"standard-English" which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it
is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which
has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and
syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning
clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is
called a "good prose style." On the other hand it is not concerned with
fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor
does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin
one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will
cover one's meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning
choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing
one can do with words is to surrender them. When you think of a concrete
object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing
you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the
exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you
are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a
conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in
and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your
meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible
and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations.
Afterwards one can choose--not simply ACCEPT--the phrases that will best
cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions
one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the
mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases,
needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can
often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs
rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following
rules will cover most cases:

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

(ii) Never use 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 barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep
change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style
now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English,
but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in these five
specimens at the beginning of this article.

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.















Index Index



  • Other Authors:    
> Charles Darwin
> Charles Dickens
> Mark Twain
> William Shakespeare

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