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Politics and the English Language by George…

Politics and the English Language (1947)

by George Orwell

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211790,277 (4.28)5
'The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's reals 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.'… (more)



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This short essay is often recommended and referred to in the context of providing advice to writers. A number of Orwell's six rules—don't use hackneyed phrases, prefer simple words, etc—are indeed good advice. Others, perhaps, seem slightly alarmist, idealistic or impractical: that we should eschew words of foreign origin, for instance. However, in such discussions, the main point of this sharp and insightful essay is often missed.

Orwell's main target is not just sloppy or vague writing, but the relationship between such language and political immorality. There is a moving passage where he gives examples of how the most dreadful atrocities can be masked by high-flown and euphemistic phrases—the use of 'pacification' to describe the systematic bombing of unarmed civilians, for instance. We might point to 'rendition' as an example of the persistence of this tendency into current times. For Orwell, the clarity of language is linked to political awareness. Sloppy expression makes us sloppy thinkers, which in turn leaves us more vulnerable to the vague insincerities of politicians.

The Kindle edition on which this review is based also includes Orwell's review of Mein Kampf, and his opinion on Hitler, which is a wonderful and honest example of concise political commentary at its best.

Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator.
  Gareth.Southwell | May 23, 2020 |
I wish I had read this before I wrote my dissertation. ( )
  mariquon | Jan 7, 2020 |
This one is very short and sweet but to the point. With all the crazy politics surrounding the US these days, I wanted to get my hands on more Orwell, because there are so many things going on that are just flat out Orwellian! It's horrifying how accurate and applicable this little book is to what's happening in 2018. And it's absolutely horrifying that half the country wouldn't even understand this book.
  justagirlwithabook | Jul 31, 2018 |
To say that this book is equally applicable today is naive. Orwell's work is applicable to all of history, whether in the sense that politicians rarely say what they mean, or hide atrocities through vague language, or whether all of history has been re-written in such a way as to hide the truth. The word "democracy" as we use it today, and especially when we mean the phrase "liberal democracy", is the opposite of what Orwell writes. For example, why use a phrase when a single word will do? In the case of liberal democracy, why use a single word when we really mean a phrase? Any undergraduate student of politics should know that "liberal democracy" is an "essentially contested concept". But why is this so? Orwell explains: 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 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. What does this mean? It means that attempting to "depoliticise" (Orwell criticises the use of un- and de- and -ise words) language is a political act. Indeed, to be conservative is to prevent another's exercise of power by exercising a legacy power while claiming that no such power exists. It is interesting that this work includes Orwell's review of Hitler's Mein Kampf, where he claims that in Hitler's Brownshirt days, he was regarded by both the left and the right as a conservative. And whenever I think of Hitler I cannot help but think of the movie Tea with Mussolini, for the same reason. To conclude, this work is relevant to all time, just as the political dramas unfolding today have been unfolding forever, and will continue to do so. But what can we do? If my other reading is anything to go by, we can take a "bird's-eye view" like the Stoics, and see history for what it is. Or, one might adopt an Epicurean approach and withdraw from politics altogether. Nonetheless, if one combines the two approaches, one can see it for what it is, and withdraw, knowing it will make no difference either way, and then focus on using plain and simple English to convey the truth. The major difference today, however, is that there is an app that will help one do just that. Aren't we lucky. ( )
  madepercy | Dec 28, 2017 |
I wish I had read this before I wrote my dissertation. ( )
  bo18 | Jan 18, 2016 |
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