by Daniel A. Kaufman
Orwell’s influential essay, published in 1946, when considered alongside his “The Prevention of Literature” (1946) and the Appendix to 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak” (1949), offers a powerful picture of language and its abuse, especially in the arena of politics. It is one of those essays that seems more prescient with each year that passes, which is both impressive – Orwell’s vision was remarkably far-reaching – and terrifying, insofar as it means that the political debasement of our language continues apace and apparently, without end.
At one level, the essay is a style-piece, at times reminiscent of Sections 3 and 5 of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (“Elementary Principles of Composition” and “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”), and dispenses mostly sensible advice for the writing of clear, uncluttered and unpretentious prose. Three literary sins that Orwell warns against stand out in particular:
- Dying Metaphors – A fresh metaphor contributes to writing and speech, by evoking a mental image that enhances and deepens one’s understanding. A stale or dead metaphor does the opposite, providing stock phrases that make it possible to write and speak without thinking, while at the same time failing to facilitate – and even undermining – communication. We observe this latter effect, today, because audiences – and especially younger ones – are often completely ignorant of the relevant point of reference. Of what use is it, for example, to speak of someone’s “Achilles’ heel,” if the person to whom one is speaking has no idea who Achilles is?
- Pretentious Diction – Orwell includes a number of things under this category, beyond the mere use of fancy words, where simple ones would do. He also means the use of inflationary terminology like ‘epic’ and ‘historic’, as well as the littering of one’s writing and speech with foreign words and especially, Latin and Greek ones (and French too), where the intent always is to create an illusion that something is better, more important or more sophisticated than it actually is.
- Meaningless Words – There are any number of expressions that really don’t mean anything until – or conversely, can mean just about anything when – they are filled in. ‘Freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘justice’ have wildly different meanings, depending on the frame of reference from which one is speaking. The effect of using them, then, without further elucidation, is that they connote a kind of generally positive or negative meaning. To say that something furthers “democracy”— or, to use a contemporary favorite, “diversity” – is simply a way of saying that it is good; that it ought to be admired and pursued, regardless of what is specifically meant by it, which, if the audience is deemed not to share the writer’s or speaker’s values, will not be made explicit.
Despite the variety of literary sins that Orwell describes, there are some common, general effects: they contract thought rather than expand it; diminish clarity rather than increase it; falsify rather than state truths; and manipulate those with whom one is communicating, rather than engage them as conscious, rational individuals, deserving of respect. Of course, these modes of writing and speech are most commonly found – and are most toxic in their effects – in politics. There, obscurantist and manipulative language is deliberate and premeditated, largely for the purpose of “defending the indefensible,” as Orwell observes:
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 the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless 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.
In this way, politicians and generals make palatable their worst deeds, for the sake of public approval and for posterity. Even more seriously, when this sort of corruption and debasement of language is not only deliberate but systematic, it has the capacity to undermine human thought and the precious internal liberty that comes with it. The written and spoken English in Orwell’s day – and even more so, in our own – may be slovenly and debased, because it is used by people to express slovenly and debased thoughts, but as Orwell indicates, a slovenly and debased language makes it more likely that we will think slovenly and debased thoughts.
In the hands of a totalitarian government, like the one that Orwell imagines in 1984, such a language can be used to effect a complete transformation of the individual, ultimately rendering him a defenseless tool of the state; a non-person. The book’s Appendix, which gives a comprehensive overview of the “principles of Newspeak,” describe a language whose aim is to exercise control over what it is possible for a human being to think and thus over who and what he is, something that is effected, in part, by:
(a) The drastic reduction in the overall number of words and expressions.
(b) The simultaneous sharpening and blurring of language – sharpening, in those cases where vagueness allows people to think of things in morally or politically ambiguous ways, and blurring in those cases where it is important that people not make various distinctions, with all the moral and political subtleties that may follow from making them. The latter includes words like “Sexcrime” or “Thoughtcrime” which include any and every manner of sexual immorality or forbidden opinions conceived by the regime, the individual terms for which have all been eliminated.
(c) The deliberate use of euphemisms whose apparent and actual meanings are, in fact, opposed, such as ‘Joycamp’, which, in fact, is the general term for forced labor camps.
1984’s protagonist, Winston Smith, describes a person who not only has been trained in this manner of speaking and thinking, but has embraced it:
As he watched the eyeless face with the jaw moving rapidly up and down, Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking, it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.
Which is almost precisely how he describes the real world politician, in “Politics and the English Language”:
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…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.
1984 describes the most extreme possible case of this sort of language and thought-control; a fiction in which, by way of the manipulation of language, a government that already completely dominates the physical lives of its citizens can equally take control of their mental lives. But Orwell wants to emphasize that the corruption of language is equally dangerous in our own world, even though it operates at a less extreme level. For in the hands of a particular political or ideological movement, the uses of language that Orwell warns against can create a kind of group-think which, when replicated across the political landscape, renders genuine political discourse impossible and leaves our society exposed to aspirant totalitarians.
Unfortunately, we see this corruption and manipulation of language throughout our political discourse today. And while no party or ideology has a monopoly on it, we find, as Orwell did, that it is disturbingly common amongst the intelligentsia and thus, on the political Left. When Orwell wrote 1984, it was language derived primarily from Marxism-Leninism, while today, it draws from a combination of the myriad “social-justice” and post-colonial ideologies that are most popular on college campuses, among both faculty and students. It is the intelligentsia, after all, that is pushing for speech codes on college campuses; that is behind legislation like Canada’s Federal Bill C-16 and New York City’s “Human Rights Law,” which make failure to use a person’s “preferred gender pronoun” a legally actionable offense; that has redefined “harm” so as to include speech with which one disagrees; and that has engaged in mob behavior in order to suppress the speech of others.(1)
Indeed, Orwell speaks directly to this point in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”:
The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that ‘the truth’ has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of ‘the truth’ and merely resists it out of selfish motives…
Our own society is still, broadly speaking, liberal. To exercise your right of free speech you have to fight against economic pressure and against strong sections of public opinion, but not, as yet, against a secret police force. But what is sinister … is that the conscious enemies of liberty are those to whom liberty ought to mean most. The big public do not care about the matter one way or another. They are not in favor of persecuting the heretic, and they will not exert themselves to defend him. they are at once too sane and too stupid to acquire the totalitarian outlook. The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946)
George Orwell, “The Prevention of Literature” (1946)
George Orwell, 1984 – Full Text (1949)
George Orwell, 1984 – Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak (1949)
Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (1920)