The Tyranny of Language

Orwell thought muddled language led to muddled thinking and advocated forthright, well-written English in his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In an era of unreadable, labyrinthine, 800-page bills in Congress and a climate of overheated rhetoric in the public discourse, his message still resonates.

“The fight against bad English is not frivolous,” writes Orwell in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. “…If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Reading Orwell’s views on language, it’s no wonder that the perversion of language for nefarious political ends features so prominently in Orwell’s dual masterpieces, Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. In Orwell’s imagined totalitarian worlds, tyrants control thought by debasing language: i.e., “the Party” creates “Newspeak” (in Nineteen-Eighty-Four) to make “thoughtcrime” impossible by eradicating the vocabulary of dissent. Without the words for freedom (he argues), the idea of it ceases to exist, and people will no longer yearn for it..

Most anyone who graduated from an American high school recalls, “War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” It’s usuallyread as a Cold-War warning against Soviet-style socialism and its attendant mind-bending fabrications. But we’ve forgotten Orwell’s broader message: demagogues erode democracy insidiously and incrementally, camouflaging their designs and outright lies with lofty abstractions, meaningless slogans oft-repeated, and a euphemistic inexactness of language. Hitler had just overrun Poland when he ended his speech to the Reichstag with the following:

“I can thank God at this moment that he has so wonderfully blessed us in our first, difficult struggle for our rights. I implore Him that we and all other nations may find the right path, so that not only the German Volk but all Europe may once more rejoice in the blessing of peace.” – Adolf Hitler, Oct. 6, 1939

Anyone can invoke God and proclaim a love of peace. Hitler did so that autumn day after an extraordinarily long oratory, one which justified the invasion of Poland and blamed that “ridiculous State” for provoking him, with crimes ranging from committing atrocities against Germans to messing up the Vistula River..

It was a brilliantly-structured edifice of complete bulls**t, gilded with sanctimony—cynical speechifying at its finest.

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” 

-Orwell, Politics and the English Language


I’m thinking about this subject tonight because I just read a fascinating New York Times obit–it seems America lost a refreshingly lucid advocate of clear and forthright language last month. Unbelievably, he was an economist. “If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong,”Alfred Kahn wrote in a famous memo that urged fellow civil servants to write their letters and reports clearly and succinctly.

.If that doesn’t seem like a high-stakes matter, consider this: What would happen if bills, laws, and the U.S. tax code were written clearly and succinctly? Answer: they’d be actually possible to read and understand, far easier to follow, and less open to interpretation and arbitrary enforcement. And that would, quite simply, make us just a little bit freer.

The passive voice particularly peeved Kahn, and not merely for stylistic reasons:

The passive voice is wildly overused in government writing. Typically its purpose is to conceal information — one is less likely to be jailed if one says, ‘He was hit by a stone,’ than if he says, ‘I hit him with a stone’…The active voice is far more forthright, direct, humane.

Think “Mistakes were made.” William Schneider coined the term “past exonerative tense” to describe this linguistic construct, and William Safire called it a “passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.”

The process starts early. Not long ago, I heard a commentator discussing the human tendency to abdicate responsibility by turning to the passive construction. He told a story about how his young daughter (a 4- or 5-year old) responded to her parents’ frustrated questioning after they’d just caught her cutting up an heirloom quilt. “It happened with scissors,” she explained. In her mind, the scissors were somehow the actor, the quilt the acted upon, and she a “by”stander of sorts. Did she do this intentionally to get out of trouble, or did the phrase itself actually cause her to feel less at fault? The cause-effect relationship isn’t so clear. Orwell again:.

“But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

There’s good news: the damage is “reversible,” says Orwell.

The English language, unlike, say, Newton’s Law, is a human invention, and one over which we have a certain amount of influence. As Orwell points out in the closing sentences of his essay, we can (as individuals) choose to use language to express thought instead of concealing or preventing it. We can shine the light of satire and ridicule on the hypocrisies and evasions of everyday political language, as we have already begun to do with the “mistakes are made” construct. And we can practice the art of clear communication in our daily lives.

Amid the hotheaded rhetoric that masquerades as political debate in our country these days, it sometimes feels easier to give in and join the lowbrow shoutfest than to elevate the dialogue, at least in your small corner of the world, by choosing words a bit more carefully…and I don’t mean in the sense that the professional polemicists and spinmeisters do this–they choose words carefully, yes, but with the motive of advancing an agenda while simultaneously concealing it.

.No, I’m talking about–and this is a novel concept–actually thinking at length about what you’d like to say, then saying or writing it in the clearest, simplest possible language, free of name-calling, euphemism, and pretentiousness.

Who knows? If we start composing our emails, dinner-table debates, quarterly reports, and Web posts (yes, even the anonymous ones) in the honest, simple prose Orwell himself mastered, the habit might just spread…to Washington.

And if how we speak influences how we think, and vice versa, it just might be that talking to each other with respect and constructing our spoken and written sentences with thoughtfulness and intelligence might actually make us a little bit more intelligent, considerate, and reflective.

In the essay, Orwell suggests some remedies for the kind of bad writing that infects politics and academia. (I’m sure you’ll find many of the mistakes he outlines in the body of this post.) Here’s an excerpt:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I think I’ll post that next to the computer.the computer.


16 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Language

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Tyranny of Language | The Greenery --

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  3. Mindful speaking, mindful writing. I discovered this wonderful practice while I labored to learn English as a grown-up man. When you begin to express yourself in a new language you notice how mindless your utterances usually are and how strangely impossible to translate. At young age you quickly adopt all the new clichés and speak/write like the others. However, when you go through this in a more mature stage there is a wonderful chance to become aware of the very act of converting thoughts into words, catching this precious moment when you investigate the thought before it becomes a word, a term, and so often a mindless cliché. In order to clearly articulate yourself in a new language you have to clearly understand your own thinking first. When you do this in your mother tongue it is much easier to remain on autopilot and speak/write mindlessly.

    • Klaus, that’s such a great point, about mindfulness when you’re speaking a hard-earned second language! I hadn’t thought about it quite that way; but when every phrase is new, it’s difficult or impossible to fall back on cliches that have lost meaning with overuse. Thank you for pointing this out! Very well said: “catching this precious moment when you investigate the thought before it becomes a word…” Lovely!

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  5. Reblogged this on The War Fish's Lair and commented:
    A timely article which our (Philippine) lawmakers should take heed to…

    “One of my peculiarities, which I must beg you to indulge if I am to retain my sanity (possibly at the expense of yours!) is an abhorrence of the artificial and hyper-legal language that is sometimes known as bureaucratese or gobbledygook.” — Alfred Kahn

  6. That was an excellent article. Every writer and editor should read it (along with Orwell’s original essay, of course). I sometimes edit academic papers, and I often have to read sentences five times before I figure out what the writer was trying to say (the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon is priceless). Orwell is a hero of mine, and he is so often misunderstood these days. You definitely get what he was all about. I wish he were around today. It’s not just governments that are guilty of muddled language, but big corporations too. For a nice bit of Newspeak, check out this article in The Globe and Mail:

    Bell Canada wants to charge a dollar to make a call at a pay phone, and the company’s PR person has a baffling explanation for it at around the 12th paragraph. Enjoy.

    • HA! That’s a perfectly brilliant example of corporate Newspeak! Thanks so much for your comment. I don’t envy you having to edit academics’ writing! But you’re making the world of words a friendlier place.

      • Thanks. On another topic, I’m applying for a job editing a WordPress site for a community newspaper. Is it difficult to learn how to use WordPress? I have zero experience with the software (this is only the second comment I’ve ever posted on a blog). Keep up the good work.

      • It took me a few longish days to figure it out, but now I’m really comfortable working with it. WP has a great how-to archive, and I found it incredibly helpful as I was getting started. Best of luck!

  7. Thanks for the prompt reply. It’s reassuring to know that I could learn it in a few days. Looking forward to reading more of your blog. All the best.

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