“Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell

This video is an analysis of “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell. This video is not meant to favor any political viewpoint. It’s about imprecision in language, and the relationship of imprecise language to tyranny.

George Orwell (1903-1950), born Eric Arthur Blair, was one of the foremost political writers of the 20th century. Most famous for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell was also a noted essayist.

Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” first published in 1946, has become a classic work on the subject. In it, he notes that “as soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems to be able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed.” He offers the following “catalogue of swindles and perversions” common in bad political writing.

Dying metaphors

“A newly invented metaphor,” Orwell writes, “assists thought by evoking a visual image.” A “dead” metaphor doesn’t — it has “in effect reverted to being an ordinary word.” A dying metaphor, on the other hand, is one that has “lost all evocative power” and is employed to “save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. For Orwell, this is an indication “that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.” 

Operators, or verbal false limbs

What Orwell means here is the use of extra words and syllables when a simple verb will do. He gives examples of using “render inoperative” and “militate against” “break” or “stop” would do.

Pretentious diction

This one is pretty self explanatory, but his list of words is enough to make the most scrupulous writer feel guilty. (As examples, he offers “individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic primary, promote, etc.”) We’ve all used language that sounds good without being equally careful to ensure that the word we’ve chosen is the correct one.

Meaningless words

I think this, more than anything, defines the modern political speech. How many times do we hear words like “freedom,” “democracy,” “constitutional,” “American,” and so forth from people who hold completely contradictory views? They make us feel good, sure — they go down like ginger tea on a rainy day. But that’s not all they do. Orwell identifies a far more insidious function that meaningless words fulfill.

In this video, I discuss Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in the context of contemporary American political speech. I look at soundbites from Sarah Palin, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Orwell’s analysis goes far beyond “newspeak,” though ambiguous and euphemistic language is mercilessly criticized here.