I’ve only just started attending the Ivanhoe Reading Circle after 122 years – of the Circle, not of me – and George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ seemed a rather brave choice for a reading group. It was published in 1946 and it is only about 24 pages long. Many of its ideas have been rehashed (in, for example, Don Watson’s Death Sentence) and it’s hard now to come to it with fresh eyes. I must admit that I was rather disappointed in it.
It starts very abruptly, and I felt as if I had walked in on a conversation that had already started. He then goes on to lampoon five examples of writing, and identified four problems: (i)stale metaphors, (ii) ‘verbal false limbs’ (i.e. adding phrases like ‘serve the purposes of’ or adding syllables to a word like ‘deregionalize’). Then there is (iii) ‘pretentious diction’ or the use of foreign words and jargon; and (iv) meaningless words to hide the vacuity of ideas behind them. I don’t share his dislike of metaphors. Certainly they can become stale, but they act as a form of short-hand, and not every one has the clarity and imagination to mint their own. He uses the example of the ‘ancien regime‘ as an example of pretentious diction, but among historians ‘ancien regime‘ has a specific and accepted meaning. He then complains about the gumming together of long strips of words , much as Don Watson did sixty years later but with more elan. (Am I allowed to use that foreign word?).
He then goes on to talk about political language. It is, he claimed “broadly true that political writing is bad writing”. We’re about to be deluged with political writing now that we’re in election mode. I don’t know if it’s the writing about politics that is bad, or just the ‘talking point’ repetition and evasiveness of what comes out of politicians’ mouths that is the problem. “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. All true, but is this a problem of language or intent? To me, it seems that it’s the behaviour around the language, rather than the language, that makes it all so sordid. The failure to call politicians out when they refuse to answer a question; the failure to challenge dubious facts; demonisation (e.g. ‘illegals’ for ‘refugees’); the numbing repetition of phrases (‘going forward’, anyone?) and the dogged labouring of the issue of the day. “All issues are political issues” he says “and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, follies, hatred and schizophrenia”. For me, this is the nature of politics, rather than the language used to express it.
He makes some big claims about the connection between language and politics (hence the title of the essay), but he doesn’t back them up. “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” he asserts, but then returns to his criticisms about woolly language and circumlocution. He claims that his prescriptions are not just about simplicity, or ‘good prose style’, and yet these are the solutions he offers without really tearing into the question of language and political imagination. He seems to see politics as only ‘retail’ (another buzz-word that I assume means ‘selling’ a policy) in terms of the hearers receiving politics, but not of creating politics or imagining alternatives.
The discussion at the group provided an opportunity to vent our annoyance at politicians and politics, but I don’t know if we generated anything new. I felt as if it had all been said before – albeit, possibly by Orwell before other people- and it just felt a bit stale.
My rating: No idea. How do you rate this?
Sourced from: purchased e-book, but you can find it online quite easily.