The Magazine

Speaking of Politics

Orwell matters, but he wasn't always right.

Oct 29, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 07 • By BARTON SWAIM
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George Orwell was the greatest political essayist since William Hazlitt, and like Hazlitt's, his essays delight even when they're wrong. Probably Orwell's most famous essay is "Politics and the English Language" (1946), a rambling and deliciously witty attack on writers who allow political clichés and other varieties of formulaic balderdash to do their thinking for them. One writer, he says, "knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink."

"Politics and the English Language" is worth reading, and probably deserves its place in college writing textbooks, but that's despite rather than because of the fact that it rests on the mistaken premise that abuses of the English language have become more frequent and more flagrant in recent times than they were in some unspecified past. This is untrue, of course, except in the technical sense that more things were written and published in 1946 than 50 or 100 years before, and so more of it was nonsense. Isaac Rosenfeld once observed that Orwell was a "radical in politics and a conservative in feeling," and here Orwell makes an error to which conservatives are naturally prone: that of supposing people have become dumber during a period which happens to coincide with one's adult memory.

But the real trouble with "Politics and the English Language" is attitudinal rather than philosophical or factual. The best way to explain is by quoting a couple of typical references to it from journalists. Here, to take one of countless examples, is the first paragraph of a recent column by John Naughton in the Observer, Britain's left-wing Sunday paper:

"Political language," observed George Orwell in his great essay on "Politics and the English Language," "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Much the same applies to the output of the public relations industry. One of the most important public services that mainstream journalism can provide, therefore, consists of decoding PR-speak: translating its half-truths, unsupported assertions and evasions into plain English.

More often journalists summon Orwell's essay to make objectionable politicians look sinister or ridiculous. Here is Daniel Okrent of the New York Times:

Hijacking the language proves especially pernicious when government officials deodorize their programs with near-Orwellian euphemism. (If Orwell were writing "Politics and the English Language" today, he'd need a telephone book to contain his "catalog of swindles and perversions.") The Bush administration has been especially good at this; just count the number of times self-anointing phrases like "Patriot Act," "Clear Skies Act" or "No Child Left Behind Act" appear in The Times, at each appearance sounding as wholesome as a hymn. [Does Okrent remember the Violence Against Women Act or the Educational Excellence for All Children Act? And should the Civil Rights Act have been given a more impartial title?] Even the most committed Republicans must recognize that such phrases could apply to measures guaranteeing the opposite of what they claim to accomplish.

Leave aside, if you can, the loathsome prose (hijacking proves pernicious when officials deodorize programs). Okrent seems sincerely to believe that the preemptive titles legislators give their bills are able somehow to coax people into supporting or thinking favorably of them. Indeed, both these writers entertain the same fear; namely, that a large part of the general population can be manipulated by the clever or cynical use of words--turned this way and that as a drayhorse responds to "gee" and "haw." Mind you, Okrent and Naughton aren't themselves fooled by the semiotic tricks of the powerful. It's other people they're worried about.

The passage from Orwell's essay most often quoted is this one:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. .  .  . 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. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.