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George Orwell is reaching from the past…

December 19, 2009

…and telling me my prose is plain awful.

I just read his “Politics and the English Language” for the first time (yes, yes, I know I should have read it earlier in my life) and, although it was written in 1946, could have been penned yesterday. I’m currently slogging through several books on military “Information Operations” and think every military officer, government analyst and political communications secretary should spend fifteen minutes and read this essay.

To wit:

Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech.

Orwell provides several helpful hints on the better use of English:

  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.

#6 is especially important, for the use of euphemism has the ability to corrupt meanings and render the truly awful, clinical:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. 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.

…and ends with the memorable note that:

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Read his whole essay here.  Please.

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