Politics and the English Language

Must we move towards more concise and simplistic phrasing at the risk of losing
all complexity in argument? Upon first reading “Politics and the English Language,” I discovered Orwell to be a very able writer with a lucid style and a very transferable sort of wisdom. However, upon a closer, more focused reading of the essay, I found myself wondering whether modern English would indeed be better off without the metaphors that have defined the political language of our era. Should we never again use the “verbal refuse” that has played so large a role in the construction of politics and modern English as we know it? (637). This essay begs such a question, and our educated response to its frustrated aspirations must be a vehement “no.” Orwell’s answers to the alleged “general collapse” of the English language – while rightly founded in his frustration over totalitarianism – can cover neither the span of modern English nor the entirety of its political functions. Moreover, beyond the blatant oversimplification and screaming assumption in the essay, we must observe Orwell’s own inability to attain to its idealistic standards (626).

Instead of a more focused critical observation of political language and its deceptive effects on the common working man, Orwell, disregarding all other essential and important works of language in modern English, proceeds to inform the entire educated world of its flaws. Had he qualified his argument with examples of how the average man or woman is influenced by the deceptive endeavors of government officials, the position he maintains would be entirely possible. Had he rendered exempt the intellectual constituent of society, his argument could feasibly function as a more substantial conviction. However, he assumes that the educated public cannot read between the lines of political jargon and see through to the essence of what is actually being expressed. If it is indeed so, then the statements he makes severely overstate the truth of the problems with modern English. Orwell selects five “fairly representative samples” of modern English and summarily sucks the stylistic life from them. Orwell maintains that, 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 (628).

Assumption is the culprit in the rigidity of Orwell’s argument. The endless stream of generalizations about the English language as it is written today assumes far too much. According to Orwell, all political writing is bad, and writers of modern English are vague and incompetent: “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing” (633). The impossibility in proving a statement of such overwhelming magnitude drives further doubt into the validity of his formulaic and rigid guidelines.
Although Orwell maintains that his purpose is not so far-stretching, the essay covers a broader spectrum than he might care to admit. Consequently, Orwell proposes that, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way,” and that, “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits spread by imitation” (626). As he offers his piercing criticism of political language, Orwell assumes that these “bad habits” are indicative of a universal problem rather than scarce and distorted messages from guileful dictators and premeditating politicians.
Extrapolating upon the biases and conformist terminology of totalitarianism and unjust government, Orwell sets up a universal code of conduct for the English language. For instance, he surmises that “When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find – this 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” (634). Since in his own words Orwell admits that he does not have the knowledge to verify his perilously generalized assumptions, he should not use them to advance his potentially presumptuous position. In an attempt to substantiate the argument, Orwell speaks to issues of which he has no authority to discuss. Hence, this vague articulation is a blanket statement about political language and every other form of modern English, based upon the “bad general atmosphere” of the times. The lack of any relevant socio-cultural analyses make the argument truly hard to swallow. Orwell discusses the turbulence of the times at considerable length, but his analysis and conclusions are unsubstantiated. The cultural context is there, but the essay simply does not contain concrete examples of modern English that fit Orwell’s description of propaganda and “a mass of Latin words [that] fall upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up the details” (634). Here Orwell must necessarily cite specific examples of this insertion of Latin words, or the critical reader must disregard the statement as an unsubstantiated opinion rather than an objective truth that can be proved by the state of actual, contemporary modern English.
Orwell rather provides the necessary information by mimicking the “mass of lies” with his own invented abstraction.
Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you 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 rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement” (634, emphasis added).

Orwell concocts his own illusory examples instead of bolstering his argument with concrete citations. The use of words such as “probably” and “like,” disclaims the statement and throws into doubt the formulation of Orwell’s thesis. Instead of reliable data that act as reference points and marks of validity – that will qualify the statement – there are only preconceived suppositions originating in Orwell’s own mind. The argument as a result is weakened as it introduces unfounded abstractions that oversimplify the discussion and distort the reality of the state of modern English. In this way, Orwell is guilty of the very crimes against which he so ardently preaches.

It is precisely this contradiction and hypocrisy that cheapen Orwell’s argument, and the critical reader must necessarily ask himself whether Orwell – in his own essay – essentially reaches to the core of his proposed standards. The irony of this work, considering the scope of its criticism, is that Orwell has invariably set a rubric for his own use of modern English and must be judged accordingly. Couldn’t Orwell have used his own formula to simplify complex words and to answer the question, “Could I put it more shortly? ” (633) It is probable that the designation “sentimental archaism” could have been expressed using simple terminology such as, “over-romantic antiquity” or perhaps, “a nostalgic idea.” These words would significantly reduce the academic presence of Orwell’s authoritative stance, and so we find that he falls directly under the category of many others who must also utilize more complex terminology by which they can express more elaborate ideas. Even Orwell himself would not deny the necessity of using certain terms which can only be found in highly academic settings in specific situations. Clearly it is possible to shorten Orwell’s idea with more concise options, but why point the modern writer toward simplicity when a given situation may call for a higher and more complex lexicon? The world is not simple, and our language should never understate our experience. It follows that this new formula for modern English fails in its essential task to rid the world of “bad writing,” calling for simplicity even in the face of complexity. After having discussed the machine-like quality of political language, Orwell would have us rigidly follow a formula that invariably dictates the manner in which we express political thought. To follow a five step prescription that guarantees diction that is neither cloudy nor vague is to obey blindly the king of the simple in the kingdom of the complex.

Orwell should have adhered to his own proposal and simplified his argument to express the most concise and concrete thesis possible. Nevertheless, we are left to take “Politics and the English Language” for what it is: an unsubstantiated and oversimplified manifesto. The analysis lacks concrete examples, and the interpretation lacks tangible substance. The argument finds its way to all men when its scope should not reach past the realm of political writing. Orwell’s analysis, albeit well-crafted and eloquent, makes, to use a dying metaphor, a mountain out of a mole hill. Furthermore, the inability to substantiate certain conclusions either by concrete examples or by personal obedience to their unshakable demands is, to quote Orwell, “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” (637).

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