Word Matters Podcast

George Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language'

Word Matters, episode 85

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George Orwell published his famous essay "Politics and the English Language" in 1946, and we mostly wish he hadn't.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, things get Orwellian in the narrowest sense of the word. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. In 1946, George Orwell published his now-famous essay, "Politics and the English Language." Ammon sincerely wishes he hadn't.

Ammon Shea: One of the questions I feel like when you work in dictionaries that you often get from people, is that people always want to know what words are there that you hate, or that one hates or would banish from the language, and what words do you like. I feel like most lexicographers I know are pretty studious in trying to avoid having favorites or certainly about having dis-favorite words. But what I do have a distaste for is writings about words. My least favorite words are just peeves about language. I have to say perhaps foremost among my personal peeves is a piece of writing that is beloved by many. I like to think this is not just my contrarian nature that makes it so despised by me. It's that I think it's a bad piece of writing. I am speaking, of course, of George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." Have you two feelings on this?

Peter Sokolowski: I've only just read it recently. It's one of those things that is referred to so frequently. I'm embarrassed to say, I don't think I ever studied it in school, so I took some of it kind of secondhand, for granted, the way lots of intellectual movements, someone didn't have to study Derrida to know what deconstruction is or to at least know that word is used often by other people. So I often took this to be a reference to the idea that politicians use words in a deliberately manipulative way. So I took it not as a linguistic document at all, but as a more philosophical or a political idea. I usually saw it in the context of names of political parties or movements or laws, something like the Clean Air Act, which I think was criticized for also helping fossil fuels. So people said, "Well, that's Orwellian," because you call it one thing but you really mean something else. So I interpreted it in that very filtered way through the culture.

Emily Brewster: I think I read it about five years after I read )Animal Farm, so Animal Farm, eighth grade; freshman year of college maybe, "Politics and the English Language." I think I loved them both and believed them both completely. Thought they were just both absolutely brilliant. I didn't actually read this 1946 essay again until last night. I see some problems with Orwell's assertions at this stage, but I can also defend some of them, so.

Ammon Shea: Okay, great. What is this if not an argument. As you pointed out, it was published in 1946. It came out in the journal, "Horizon." When we talk about this particular essay, it is always important to note, and right at the beginning, that Orwell himself is claiming that he's not speaking about language in general. He's talking about political language, the language used by politicians. He specifically says, "I have not here been considering the literary use of language." If we're generous, we can give him that, but I think it's kind of a dodge because I feel like he does kind of broaden his scope. But also I feel like one of the things that has happened with this particular essay is that it is used as kind of a club by many people today in talking about language, and it is almost never used in the context of political language. People just talk out Orwell's views on English, and they don't say, "This is what Orwell had to say about politicians using the language. It's just used as a kind of general thing."

Ammon Shea: To me, one of the main problems is that Orwell seems to have very little idea of how language in general and English in particular actually works. It almost is farcically bad. I remember reading it as a kid and thinking, "Oh, this must be great. He's laying down these rules." We all love rules. We want rules about language. We want language to make sense. It feels very comforting to think that these are concrete steps that I can take to make my language use better, but they're not true. To say that the messenger is flawed is really being over-kind.

Emily Brewster: What does he say that's not true?

Ammon Shea: Well, he has a lot of things about, "Use short words. Never use a long word where a short word will do," which is this longstanding bugaboo with many people. Before Fowler wrote Modern English Usage, his famous book in 1926, he wrote a book with his brother, The King's English. They said you should always prefer the Saxon word to the Romance. E.B. White in The Elements of Style actually wrote, "Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin so use Anglo-Saxon words." Winston Churchill is quoted, whether he said it or not, as saying, "Short words are best, and the old words, when short are best of all." We've long had this feeling that you should go with the short Anglo-Saxon words rather than these fancy, flowery, long Latin words, which to me is just kind of a silly thing to say. I like long words, and when long words are appropriate, they're totally fine. So I think saying, "Never use a long word when a short one will do," is a little bit awkward considering that Orwell uses plenty of long words.

Emily Brewster: I'm looking at the essay. In the second paragraph he uses the word slovenliness. There's some significant letters in there.

Ammon Shea: What he's very good at doing, though, is breaking his own rule in the same sentence that he gives it. In this particular essay, he says, "There is a long list of fly-blown metaphors which could similarly to be got rid of." This is the section where he says, "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." Fly-blown is, of course, a metaphor. Unless the actual words here have the larva of flies growing out of them, they are not actually a fly-blown metaphor. They're metaphorical metaphors that he's talking about. The essay also has plenty of similes: "like cavalry horses answering the bugle," "a mass of Latin words," "falls upon the facts like soft snow." He talks about like a cuttlefish spreading out ink. He uses these similes and metaphors liberally. So it's kind of odd to me that he exhorts us to not use them. I think perhaps his most egregious mistake is when he says, "Never use the passive voice where you can use the active."

Emily Brewster: Except, Ammon, he doesn't say it like that. This stuck out to me also. He says-

Ammon Shea: It's the very first sentence. "Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way," and then he says, "it is generally assumed," passive voice here, "that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it." He's using the passive voice to tell you not to use the passive voice. So either he doesn't believe his own advice, or he doesn't understand it.

Emily Brewster: Then later in the same essay, he says, "In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active." That itself is in the passive voice. "The passive voice is used," not "writers used the passive voice." Just to refresh people, if you wanted to say "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active," you would say "writers use the passive voice wherever possible, rather than preferring the active voice." So he is actively doing the things he says writers should not do in his own writing over and over again.

Ammon Shea: He does it in almost all cases. In fact, some people connected with language have found fault with this essay over the years. My favorite was, some while ago, some people went through and actually counted the number of instances in which he used the passive rather than the active voice and found that he was about twice as much as your average college essay at the time. He's using it in 20% of the cases as opposed to 10% of the time when people usually use it in this setting.

Emily Brewster: Wow.

Ammon Shea: He says, "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent." He gives a list of phrases to avoid: deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, ancien régime. If you go through any of his writing, he uses most of these in his other writings. He doesn't actually use them in this essay. So this is one that he's not okay with, but he does use them regularly. Overall, my favorite is his sixth rule, which is "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." I like this so much because it is the one rule that he actually adheres to in his own writing. He breaks all of his own rules so much that it raises the question of why he thought that this should happened in the first place.

Peter Sokolowski: To me, it's the first sentence of the second paragraph that caught my eye because he identifies himself as being a member of a kind of club and invites us to join that club. He says, "Now it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes." Now, first of all, I don't think that's clear at all. Second of all, he's announcing himself as declinist, that "kids today" basically is what he's saying and that "everything must be worse today because I remember when it was better." That is basically the same exact argument we hear all the time. It's the exact same argument that was put against Webster's Third. It's declinism. It's that everything is going to pot and everything is terrible. The weird thing about Orwell is that he makes the same mistake that everyone with a declinist argument makes, which is that he expects language to provide logic. That's just not how writing works. He insists that the decadent culture has produced a collapse of language and that that collapsed language then perpetuates this decline, which is an intellectual race to the bottom, which was exactly the argument against Webster's Third, blaming the dictionary for a perceived drop in quality of standardized test results or something. But the difference is he often seems to be blaming the words rather than the writing.

Ammon Shea: I think he does blame the words rather than writing. He also thinks that if we all just steel ourselves, we can change this. We can stem the flow of bad language by just being conscious of the words that we use. We're going to set a good example. There's a great point in this where he talks about how "the jeers of a few journalists" have done away with a number of phrases that he doesn't like, like "explore every avenue" and "leave no stone unturned." I think he's really overstating the effect that jeers of a few journalists can have on the language use of hundreds of millions of people. If you look at "explore every avenue" and "leave no stone unturned," in the decades following the 1940s, they actually increased dramatically. They're not going away. If they did go away, it wouldn't be because a few journalists like George Orwell jeered at them. It would be because people just stopped using these phrases.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be right back with more on Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code "matters" at checkout. That's "matters," M-A-T-T-E-R-S at shop.merriam-webster.com.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: The conversation about George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" continues. I do think, though, that the writing that he objects to, and he starts out by giving five examples I think, it is bad writing. He is pointing out that there are real problems. Here is his first example, which I found just mind-numbing. It was by Professor Harold Lasky. The example says, "I am not indeed sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a 17th century Shelley had not become out of an experience ever more bitter in each year more alien to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate." I'm really good at reading opaque text, and this is really, really hard to follow.

Ammon Shea: I agree with you, absolutely. But I would point out that almost nothing in that would be fixed by any of the rules in Orwell's essay. He's using lots of short Saxon words in that piece. He's not using any metaphors or similes that I can see of. He's not using foreign expressions or phrases. I agree. That is a horrible piece of writing. I would not myself enjoy reading writing like that. Anyway, I'm with Orwell when he says that there is some bad writing out there, when he says there's bad political writing. Absolutely. But I feel that what he's kind of saying is let's make it better. Sure, I agree with that. That's where my agreement ends.

Emily Brewster: You agree with none of his advice?

Ammon Shea: I kind of agree with some of it a little bit. If it's possible to cut a word out, always cut it out? No, I don't agree with that. I think that's just a stylistic difference. I think if you look at writing in the 19th century, it's different than writing in the 20th century. It's just stylistically changed. I don't think that one is better for length than the other, or one is better for its brevity than the other.

Emily Brewster: I also have a problem with these kind of absolute statements: never use the passive voice, always use the fewest words possible. I think any kinds of absolutes are problematic. To always avoid any particular thing in writing is unhelpfully narrowing.

Ammon Shea: A great example of this kind of absolutism gone wrong is, we're all familiar with the "never end a sentence with a preposition." Of course, that's a meaningless thing. We end sentences with a preposition all the time. A lot of times the sentence construction demands ending a sentence with a preposition. Terminal prepositions are fine even though we've been hearing for hundreds of years that they're not. Every once in a while, somebody will come up with a variant on that. I used to occasionally see the rule in old uses books, "never end a sentence with a preposition or some other less meaningful word or insignificant word," I think was the way that they used to phrase it.

Ammon Shea: We're starting to make a little more sense if you don't want to end a sentence with a little blip, if you don't want to end your sentence with "of." Now, I don't think of prepositions as less meaningful or less significant personally, but that's just me. But I could see if somebody had the exhortation to end your sentence on an emphatic, meaningful, significant word, it's fine with me. I like that as a general rule of advice. But when you turn that into "Don't end it with a word that's less meaningful or significant," and that somehow becomes "Don't end it with a preposition or don't end it with this kind of thing," that's the kind of absolutism that just doesn't carry water.

Emily Brewster: This makes me think about the motivation for writing an essay such as this and the motivation for sharing an essay like this. This essay was written a long time ago now, in 1946. It is still something that people are talking about and are using in the aid of their own writing, and to try to get other people to be better writers. There is a desire among users of the English language to do that better, to become a better writer, and clearly Orwell thought that he had some important things as a skilled writer. This man was clearly a skilled writer of the English language. He published books. He knew how to use the English language. He was an expert in language use as much as anyone else who writes so many books or spend so much time using language. Any native speaker is actually also an expert. But he had a very specific kind of expertise, and he wanted to share this expertise with people. But he generalized his own expertise in a way that, as you point out, Ammon, was not even an accurate assessment of his own use. Why did he do that? What was he thinking?

Ammon Shea: I don't know why Orwell would write this. The lack of introspection here is stunning to me in that it comes up again and again and again. In the section on "Never use a long word where a short word one will do," he almost immediately says, "A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has got..." This phraseology? That's a pretty damn long word there. I'm sure I could cut phraseology down by at least two or three syllables. Shorter than phraseology? I don't know why he was so lacking in introspection about his own writing.

Ammon Shea: I do think I know why people are still so adamant in sharing this because I think people just want tools. They want to reduce this glorious mess that is English to a series of concrete steps that you can take to make it definably better. Should I use a long word? Never. How about, should I use this simile that I know? Never. These are things that you can say to yourself. When should I use a simile that I'm used to seeing in print? You should never a simile. No, I'm going to never use a simile, and my writing will therefore be better. But I don't think that language responds well to this kind of absolutism. It gives us a sense of comfort. It must be better because I'm following these rules that were set down in the journal, Horizon, and that our results will be better. I don't think that's the way that it works.

Peter Sokolowski: He's completely ignorant on matters of the scientific study of language, on what we would call linguistics. He's not a linguist, but he's a good writer. That is the problem here, which is that so many people and especially declinists or language change deniers, people who say "kids today," they often want language to be like math. They want it to be logical, and they want to find a formula. I think what this all points to for me is that good prose style is much more art than science, and it requires, dare I say it, humanities exposure, the kind of general exposure to good writing and lots of it that you can only get if you read a lot. That's really the club to join. Join the readers who then can identify, "Oh, yes. That is a nicely turned phrase."

Peter Sokolowski: The fact is Orwell writes this in 1946, and he has nothing but contempt and scorn for all political discourse. Yet, he's within a couple of years of Churchill saying, "We shall meet them on the beaches. We shall meet them on the landing grounds." He's within a couple of years of FDR saying, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Some of the greatest political utterances in the history of the language were made just a couple of years before this essay was written. So he's kind of deliberately putting his thumb on the scale, which is what a lot of essayists do. He's got the right reflex but the wrong tools. He's not equipped to help others write. All he really is doing is listing his peeves.

Emily Brewster: But Peter, of those examples that you cite, Churchill and FDR, I think Orwell would have given the thumbs up to. He would've said, "Yes, these are good examples."

Ammon Shea: But those are following his rules. There is something to be said for that. Those are well written, and I think they're very effective particularly as political discourse. Again, if we're going to be kind to Orwell we can say that, yes, a lot of what he's saying will apply to the current political language that was being used.

Ammon Shea: Something that Peter said a few minutes ago, and I'm going to disagree with that, which is that you said, "People want language to be like math." I think in some ways they do, but actually I think people want language to be like religion more than they want it to be like math. There's a comfort that people get from certain religious structures that some other people try to get from certain linguistic structures, that there are things which are done by the righteous, and there are things that are done by the unrighteous in a way. And that a lack of adherence to this set of structure betokens a lack of moral fiber in a way because we make these value judgments of people based on their language use which have nothing to do with anything a lot of the time. It's not a one-to-one comparison between religion and language, but I am often reminded of religious fervor when I hear the way that certain people talk about how language use should be.

Peter Sokolowski: A big part of the conversations that we've all had with members of the public or strangers, people who correspond with a dictionary in one way or another, is some kind of membership of a club. "You care about language in the way that I do." There is absolutely a huge moral component that is imposed upon that. We always are judging others by their use of language. We are always judged by our use of language, by the way we spell, by the way we pronounce words. That's just a simple human fact. It's easier for us as professionals to separate that from culture.

Peter Sokolowski: So what you just said, Ammon, which is so true, which is that these things have nothing to do with drawing moral conclusions, whether you end a sentence with a preposition or whether you don't put an apostrophe in "you're." Yet, it becomes a shorthand for the kind of person that I want to know or the kind of person that I grew up with or the kind of person my parents raised me to be. That's very extra-linguistic, isn't it? That's why I think, Ammon, your analysis is brilliant. That takes you into something like religion, like culture, that goes way beyond what a language can do, but we extrapolate so much from it.

Emily Brewster: Language does indeed do that. It is one of the things that a language does, the different ways that language are used. It generates these in-groups and out-groups. But I think it is really important to reflect back on that and to recognize that good grammar does not mean ethical. You can have by-the-book grammar and never conjugate a verb incorrectly and be a horribly unethical person. That is wholly possible.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Ammon Shea: If we go back to Orwell, I don't want to be too harsh in my assessment of him, though I don't think he had any business writing about language, but this was just an essay that he wrote. I think the real problem here was that it's been then kept alive by other people who are trying to turn it into something that it's not and that it's not equipped to handle. I think insofar as these kinds of exhortatory writing advice pieces go, I'm willing to go as far as "you should write better; you should consider your language; you should write carefully." I think these are all fine things to say. I start to shut down when I see the linguistic absolutism: "never do this," and "never do that." There are very few cases that I can think of in which you should never do something. I'm not going to say you should never, of course, because that would contraindicate myself. But there are very few cases in which I would feel comfortable saying, "Never do this."

Peter Sokolowski: If you remove politics from this essay, I find it hard to distinguish it from Strunk & White, another famous book that also offers advice that is poorly constructed from a linguistics point of view.

Ammon Shea: I think there are a lot of problems with Strunk & White, but I feel that Strunk & White is actually more forgiving than this. I mean, Strunk & White, I don't think they say things like, "Never start a sentence with 'and' and 'but.'" They actually have some flexibility, not much. I think Strunk & White is a horrible, dated document that should be burned in a trash heap. It's not as bad as this.

Peter Sokolowski: I can't help but quote our friend Geoffrey Pullum, the great grammarian who refers to Strunk & White as "a toxic little compendium of nonsense."

Ammon Shea: Yes.

Emily Brewster: Yes, and "grammarian," as in a linguist.

Peter Sokolowski: A linguist and professor of grammar and author of maybe the definitive grammar of the English language today but also someone who has a great flare.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, that's a fantastic quote. The reason that this essay, of course, has been promulgated and is the reason we are talking about it today is because people are still talking about it, because people still want guidance on how to write better. I am wondering, Ammon, as a writer, how do you think people should learn to write better? Putting aside, for a minute, the writers who think that they have all this advice to offer to the rest of us, how should people who want to improve their writing do so?

Ammon Shea: Read more. Read writers you like is the way to go about it. For me, one of the main issues with a lot of the standard writing books is even writers that we enjoy, like many people enjoy Stephen King, I think he has some fine characteristics in his writing. When he starts giving writing advice, he had this great passage where he talked about all the times you shouldn't use adverbs. People went through and found dozens and dozens of adverbs in the page that he was talking about, "you shouldn't use adverbs in your writing." It quickly became apparent that he didn't really know what an adverb was in a lot of cases. That kind of writing advice, I think, doesn't work.

Ammon Shea: Now, I know a number of other writers who have read Stephen King and talked about the way that they've been influenced by his writing, the ways that he develops plot, maybe his character development, any number of things, which he does phenomenally well. I think that's a great way to learn writing. If for nothing else, one of my biggest peeves about this kind of language writing is that almost inevitably it is focusing on the negative. Why when we hear people say, "Oh, I care about language," why is that so often synonymous with saying, "I like to talk trash about the way that other people use language"? Why, when people say, "I care about language and let me share with you some of the things that I think are really beautiful about it. These are some fine examples of well-turned phrases," why is that so infrequently something that we come across?

Ammon Shea: I think if you care about language, if you love language, you should be embracing the kind of delectability of it, the fine use of language. Look at some of the nice ones. There's so much beautiful language around us that I think we're really doing ourselves a disservice, not to mention the people who have to listen to us, but doing them a much greater disservice if all we do is focus on the negative.

Emily Brewster: That's totally true. But it's easier to point out the ugliness than it is to quote the sublime. There is gorgeous writing out there that can just be staggering. I think the other thing is that if you want to improve your writing, it's really nice to think that there are some distinct steps that you can take that will then result in you being an improved writer. That's really comforting and much simpler than read, read, read, read, read, read good writers, read over and over and over again, and identify things you really like, and then read something aloud that you have written and see how it feels.

Emily Brewster: Writing well is not about following distinct steps. It's about getting a feel for it. It is an art form. But the really tricky thing about it is that we all use language. Painters have paint as their territory. That's their medium. I don't even have to dabble in it. I mean I paint my bathroom, whatever. I don't have mastery, and I don't think that I have mastery of paint at all, and I don't need to. But as a speaker of English and as somebody who has to write an occasional email or whatever, even if I weren't a lexicographer, all of us, as native speakers, we use this tool, and then some people use it professionally. It's a very tricky territory. Some people use it artistically, and some people use it solely for jargon, and some people use it for political purposes. We need the language to do so much, and it does do all these different things.

Emily Brewster: To get really good at writing creatively or writing in a way that moves people or that convinces people, it feels like it should be simple because you know the tools, you know the words, you know the prepositions, you know the basic sentence structure. But to actually do it in a way that is compelling takes a lot of practice.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. For the Word of the Day and all your general and dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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