Jewish World Review June 20, 2002 / 10 Tamuz, 5762

Richard Lederer

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George Orwell is
looking at you | Over Fifty years ago, George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" was first published in The New Republic. Since then the article has become the most widely reprinted essay in our language.

In it, Orwell discusses the parlous condition of the English language and exposes the prevalent diseases that afflict it: "Modern English 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." Orwell catalogues and analyzes various types of rhetorical "swindles and perversions," concluding that "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."

As an example of the kind of ink verbal insincerity can so easily squirt, Orwell quotes a well-known verse from biblical 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 favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to all of them.

Then the essayist presents a version of the passage with its life blood drained away and replaced by the embalming fluid of modern English style:

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.

The biblical passage contains 60 syllables, the "translation" 90. Yet which version, asks Orwell, seems fresher and more vivid? More telling, which seems closer to the kind of speech and writing we encounter in modern times?

Orwell doesn't just complain. He states that "the decadence of our language is probably curable" and ends his essay by suggesting a number of remedies to help restore the language to a healthier state. For a set of rules for plain talk and clear writing, it would be difficult to better these six offered in "Politics and the English Language." If we all followed these guidelines, our prose might not be as good as Orwell's, but it would certainly be to the point:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

In "Politics and the English Language" Orwell wrote, "Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. . . . In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence. . . . Thus, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."

More powerfully than any other writer, George Orwell warned us that dishonest language is a drug that can put conscience to sleep.

He set an alarm in our brains to go off when a president names the latest thing in nuclear missiles the "Peacekeeper."

He helped us to know that when prior public statements are labeled "inoperative," what is really meant is "Don't believe what I told you then. Believe what I tell you now" -- and "I lied."

He alerted us that when words are used to lie rather than to tell the truth, the house of language grows dark and the human spirit withers.

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


06/06/02: Jest for the health of it
05/30/02: It is truly astonishing what havoc students can wreak on the chronicles of the human race
05/16/02: A bilingual pun is twice the fun!
05/09/02: What's in a president's name?
05/03/02: Slang as it is slung
04/25/02: Abstemious words
04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2002, Richard Lederer