Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Available online at The Orwell Foundation
In this essay, Orwell decries a scourge of weak writing in the English language, writing marked by cliched phrases, imprecise descriptors, meaningless words, and pretension. In short, he tells us that writing is becoming simultaneously more verbose and less meaningful.
While the essay isn’t as fun to read as George Carlin’s rants on the same subject, it’s a clear and well-organized discussion of this flaw. Orwell presents the problem, offering examples of random unreadable passages and discussion of where each goes awry. He also contrasts a clear and concise Biblical passage with how its message would sound translated into this corrupt modern form of the language. (That’s the most comedic portion of the essay.) Next, Orwell offers writers simple questions they might apply to making their writing less bloated and more impactful. The key insight of the essay is that thought corrupts language, but language also corrupts thought.
The essay is almost eighty years old, but the problem persists — particularly among politicians, a class of people who love to both sound impressive but without saying anything definitive, anything that might pin them down. That said, since Orwell we’ve developed new linguistic afflictions unique to the internet age, and the essay could probably use updating. Still, it’s an excellent place to start one’s reflection on what’s going wrong in the English language.
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Orwell’s Politics and the English Language