How is the immediate post-World War II period relevant to Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’? Is language still ‘political’? And if so, how?
George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English language” written in 1946, argues that our language is becoming more and more political. By this, he means that in the purpose of political language is to cover up, to smooth over the horrors of reality. The language has become too euphemistic thus dulling what occurs. He states “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and make murder sound respectable.”
By euphemising and turning a phrase, what is being described becomes anodyne and becomes accepted. Orwell argues that this is a dire situation and “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing you can do with words is to surrender to them.”
Orwell was writing his piece in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest wars in human history and from which a whole host of language flowed. One of the finest examples of this style is shown by Orwell himself in his 1948 masterpiece 1984 in which Big Brother has caused ‘newspeak’ to become common parlance. It is an extreme example, but the way the design of the language was used to remove all shades of meaning and reduce it down to its bare bones.
This can be compared to terms such as ‘collateral damage’ whereby accidental damage to things outside of an intended target are glossed over, similarly ‘friendly fire’, the killing of comrades by accident is reduced to a more friendly term. It makes these events more palatable to the point where we no longer are able to be shocked, or even elicit an emotive response.
The dilution of language extends further. Democracy and as suggest in the essay ‘equality and class’ are no longer used for the original purpose. These words are thrown about to suit politicians own end. For example, in George W. Bush’s speech to the American Enterprise Institute in 2003 he states that in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks that ‘Across the world, we are hunting down the killers one by one. We are winning. And we’re showing them the definition of American justice.’ American justice. Justice. Merriam-Webster defines justice as follows “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals.”
While perhaps Bush Junior believed his invasion of Iraq was just, in retrospect, there was nothing just about it. But by using the phrase “American Justice” it evokes jingoism, patriotism and pride. He motivates the movement to be supported by the people. This is the goal of political language, to manipulate the people. Again, as Orwell said “To make murder sound acceptable.” Further, “The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.” Orwell later states “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.” Words are used to convey an unsaid meaning, a definition agreed upon even if it is not the actual meaning of the word.
This is not a new thing, and something which Orwell is aware of and one imagines, would despair at its prevalence still. It would be unwise to say that it retains its shape still though. It, like all language, is versatile and changes to suit the needs of the time. We see today, with the rise of UKIP, that political language has become also more ‘chummy’ as if talking to a friend. Men like Nigel Farage appear to be masters of this, being pictured supping a pint or generally trying to appear as an everyman. He does not talk of wars or liberties, not in the way of Churchill but talks of what he believes the common man would like to hear.
“But there’s certainly only one thing I could never agree with George Galloway on. He’s a teetotaller and wants to close all the bars in the House of Commons. That is just not on.” In that quote, he portrays himself as a man cut from the same cloth as George Galloway, a self-proclaimed revolutionary (a term which itself has been diluted by the amount of ‘revolutionaries’, self-proclaimed, fighting a non-existent against the ‘man’ when they are in fact, ‘the man’) but also saying ‘I’m like you, I love a pint’ and it works, as recent elections show, not doubt due to the fact that in a world of politicians following the party line, he stands out as a fountain in a desert. Albeit a fountain filled with sand, as regardless of the language used, politicians use it to manipulate, proclaiming a desire to take down the system but longing to be part of it.
On the party line, Orwell says “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.” The phrase ‘toeing the party line’ is used as an example by Orwell of a “worn-out metaphor[s] which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Nowadays, politicians will speak from a memorised set of instructions and going off key, while common (even in the last week, the Government has been wrought by infighting over Michael Gove’s curriculum changes) usually result in a contrite apology or sanctimonious fawning to make amends (see Gove on Theresa May). Further responses to such ‘rebellion’ can lead to expulsion but generally, like Winston Smith in ‘1984’ all that seems to be required is a recanting of independent thought, such that “when one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained (sic) 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.”
Farage is good at using ‘Political Correctness’ or ‘PC’ to persuade the voters he is of a different ilk. “It’s about businesses nervous about taking on school leavers because of a mass of red tape. It’s about health and safety regulations and green fines.” These, according to papers like the Sun is what your ‘average Joe’ worries about. ‘PC’ is regularly decried as restrictive, meddlesome and holds people back. Farage is playing off a different kind of fear. Not a fear of war or death but of the inability to prosper, as if what is holding you back from being successful is only the European Union.
Political language tells people what they want to hear. Not just how life can be better in a snappy sound-bite but also it protects them from things that may be upsetting. As mentioned earlier, ‘Friendly fire’ is a far more acceptable than the alternative.
Orwell states that “if you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.” This is the anthesis of political language, it is not charged with emotion to the point of dilution, it is not stacked to persuade forcefully, and it does not play on fear. By simplifying one can notice ‘if you make a stupid remark, its stupidity will be obvious.’
In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld stated that regarding the lack of intelligence towards terrorism “that we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
This is an example one feels Orwell might have used himself as the babble used by politicians. What Rumsfeld was trying to say, in simpler terms was that we are aware of some things, there are some things we know we do not know and there are others that we have no idea about. It is the obsolete terms and over complicated language that renders Rumsfeld’s quote as useless.
This can be further emphasised in the modern usage of political correctness. A lecturer I know is no longer termed a lecturer, but a learning enrichment facilitator, Brain storming, a passive term, has been replaced with mind mapping and ‘Merry Christmas’ in America is now widely referred to as ‘Happy Holidays.’ As a result, words and phrases become anodyne.
That is not to say words and phrases do not need to be removed, they can expire in their usefulness as much as anything else. Orwell says “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 cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed.”
Orwell offers a simple solution in six rules to follow.
(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 outright barbarous.
Point six is a fine example of a humour in writing that Orwell possessed and one that is severely lacking in political language. By these rules, Orwell reasons, we would slowly take back the language and make it better. “One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits.
We use these words and phrases without knowing properly what they mean. Orwell offers up “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 avoid perverting the original phrase” as an example of this. But due to the ubiquitous nature of such sayings, we do not question them and continue their usage through imitation.
This ubiquity of phrase was wholly obvious to Orwell in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Things like the ‘iron curtain’ and ‘final solution’ were common parlance and masked what were either horrifying or deeply divisive human endeavours. With the ‘Final Solution’ we see the worst acts of humanity sanitised. “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.”
By reclaiming the language, by simplifying, we would lose some of the pleasantness of it all, the terms we would use to define the mass extermination of a people, as the final solution covers, would be far less palatable and yet this is a price, Orwell argues, is worth paying. Language, non-political, is “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.” By default, political language conceals and prevents thought. Orwell shows the extreme nature of this in ‘1984.’
The extent of the change since Orwell wrote his essay is difficult to gage. He ends his essay with the idea that “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” and yet the majority of thesephrases are still in common usage, some, like acid test, possibly more common than back then.
Language will always be political for as long as there are politics. Language allows people to claim power and to keep people underfoot. It is up to us, as Orwell states, to reclaim the language, on our own at first and maybe affect a sea change. The best one can hope for is to either simplify or educate to see the fatuitous nature of what we are fed by the powers that be. The English language is a constantly changing thing, and the definition of what makes language political will change, as seen from the great speeches of the 20th century to the modern ‘everyman’ ideology.
It is not difficult to write a non-political piece, nor is it difficult to spot one. Orwell lays out how simple it is by saying that “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?” The issue is that there are too many well-worn phrases, devoid of meaning to fill the spaces where independent thought should be.