Politics and the English Language

Hear that low hum? George Orwell is spinning in his grave. Orwell's warnings in his 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language" went unheeded; jargon is everywhere. People celebrate their peers who "think outside the box" and "color outside the lines," but what are they celebrating? What does political speak do that can't be accomplished with plain language? This election year, keep an eye on the maverick who turns their nose up at dark money – they're totally astroturfing that battleground state.

Politics and the English Language Politics and the English Language

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Table of contents

    George Orwell and "Politics and the English Language"

    George Orwell was passionate about the subject of politics. He traveled to Spain when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 to fight fascism. When found medically unfit to serve during World War II, he contributed to the cause by writing guides used to train troops, and wrote broadcasts for the BBC to undermine Nazi propaganda.

    Most of his famous writing is political or includes social criticism. In his 1946 essay "Why I Write" Orwell states, "Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written . . . against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism."1

    George Orwell regularly immersed himself in England's impoverished neighborhoods to get a first-hand account of poverty for his writing. He was sympathetic to their plight and felt socialism would end income inequality. In Orwell's 1940 essay, "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius", he writes, "It is a fact that any rich man . . . has less to fear from Fascism than either Communism or democratic Socialism."2

    Orwell published "Politics and the English Language" in 1946. World War II had ended the year before, and Europe was in tatters. One of Orwell's arguments in "Politics and the English Language" is that language and thought reflect each other. In other words, language is how people share their thoughts, but to some extent, those thoughts depend on what words are available to them.

    In "Politics and the English Language" Orwell sets out to help rebuild European society by alerting them to "bad habits" in writing they should avoid so they "can think more clearly . . . [which is a] necessary first step toward political regeneration" (1946).

    "Politics and the English Language" Summary

    Orwell begins "Politics and the English Language" by arguing that the English language is suffering due to a poor economic and political climate. He denies advocating due to "good old days" nostalgia and asserts that the problem can be fixed if people put forth the effort. Orwell shares writing excerpts that embody the characteristics he finds most disturbing: "staleness of imagery" and "lack of precision" (1946).

    Orwell uses "Politics and the English Language" to list writing trends that people should stop doing:

    1. Using cliché metaphors.
    2. Using fluff words that increase word count without adding clarity.
    3. Using large words to sound more authoritative.
    4. Using abstract words that look like they're saying something profound but have no meaning. Orwell places political language in this slot, saying, "the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different" (1946).

    Have you come across any of these recently? If so, what was your reaction?

    Orwell charges that modern English is moving away from using specific language and imagery in writing and toward vague sentences that sound pleasing to the ear rhythmically but don't actually mean anything. To combat this, he says writers should ask themselves:

    1. How should I say what I'm trying to say?
    2. Is there an image I can use to help what I'm saying make sense?
    3. Is the image crisp enough to make the reader think about what I'm saying?
    4. Can I use fewer words to get my meaning across or say it in a better way?

    Orwell follows these questions by honing in on political writing specifically. In "Politics and the English Language" Orwell says overly familiar phrases filter meaning and leave even the speaker unsure of what they're saying, which is where "the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear" (1946).

    Couching morally questionable decisions in euphemisms allows the people who make such decisions to separate themselves from their choices. Politicians and their representatives use catchphrases to encourage the public to go along with what they're saying.

    Politics and the English Language, Choice Signs, StudySmarterFig. 1 - George Orwell discusses how language affects the way people make decisions.

    Before Orwell offers a set of rules that he feels would offer a shift toward fixing the English language, he clarifies that he is not saying there should be a set form of English and grammar. "Politics and the English Language" argues the most important thing is for "meaning [to] choose the word, and not the other way about" (1946).

    He states that words choose meaning when the writer thinks in abstracts rather than having a clear picture of what they're trying to say. Orwell believes using the following rules will create a clear and concise writing style:

    1. Don't use the same figures of speech everyone else does.
    2. Choose simple language.
    3. Eliminate extra words in sentences.
    4. Use an active voice whenever possible.
    5. Choose words most people understand when technical language isn't necessary.
    6. These rules are made to be broken if they would cause the writer to sound like an idiot.

    Look at what is happening between the subject and the verb to decide whether something is written in the active or passive voice. The subject (noun) of an active voice sentence acts out the verb. In a passive voice sentence, the subject experiences the verb's action.

    Active voice: She sang a song in the shower.

    Passive voice: A song was sung by her in the shower.

    "Politics and the English Language" Analysis

    Orwell's arguments in "Politics and the English Language" are mostly logical appeals. He offers examples of what he considers lousy writing and dissects what is wrong with them using agreed-upon rules of language. Orwell makes a valid point that writers who mix their metaphors or switch the original term in a metaphor for a word that sounds similar haven't "stopped to think" (1946). It's hard to believe anyone who would write "never lick a gift horse in the mouth" knows what they're saying, even if it is probably still good advice.

    Orwell's discussion concerning political writing remains relevant. Euphemisms take the hard edge off unpleasant conversations, and politics tend to be full of unpleasant discussions. However, that is precisely why it's dangerous to allow decisions to be made by politicians who speak in language that enables them to reframe their actions into phrases that disconnect them from the reality of their choices.

    For example, President George W. Bush's speech about "weapons of mass destruction" owned by Saddam Hussein led many people to support a war against Iraq that was based on lies. Bush's soundbite-worthy description of the weapons Hussein and his allies supposedly owned inspired fear.

    Consequently, American soldiers and Iraqi citizens suffered and died. Emotional appeal creeps into Orwell's writing when he describes the machine-like statesman whose glasses reflect the stage lights and "turn [their eyes] into blank discs" (1946).

    An example of the writing Orwell rallied against would be a bloated rephrasing of the sentence: "Politicians speak in euphemisms that enable them to reframe their actions into phrases that disconnect them from the reality of their choices." It would look something like: "Politicians speak in euphemisms that bounce off each other like images in funhouse mirrors until they are completely removed in their minds from the bombs they authorize."

    Orwell's essay is written mainly in the style he advocates for, lending it credibility. The work has a balanced mix of sentence lengths that flow together to engage the reader's attention. Complex thoughts are expressed using straightforward language and striking images. Orwell states that overused phrases block a writer's meaning "like tea-leaves blocking a sink" and compares their convenience to "a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow" (1946).

    "Politics and the English Language" Tone

    "Politics and the English Language" is written in an authoritative and often sarcastic tone. It succeeds at relating to the Everyman, especially when it pokes fun at the circular writing occasionally encountered in art or literary criticism. As an example of this, Orwell offers two contradicting art critics' opinions on the subject of an artist's work as having a "living quality" and a "peculiar deadness," arguing that if they used concrete words like "black and white . . . [the reader] would see at once that language was being used in an improper way" (1946).

    The Everyman is a trope, or figurative device, a generic representation of the average person. The Everyman likes and dislikes what most people like and dislike and reacts as a "normal" person would in any given situation.

    Writing classes often include Orwell's essay because it offers a strong foundation for building writing skills and teaches students to think critically about political language. In 'Politics and the English Language' Orwell explains that it's essential to ask oneself questions such as why the United States named the program it uses to spy on its citizens "The Patriot Act," because "[all] issues are political issues" and "language can . . . corrupt thought" (1946). Most people want to be seen as patriots, so using that word in the program's name has a subliminal effect of making people want to comply.

    Politics and the English Language, Security Cameras, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Orwell saw "The Patriot Act" as a gross invasion of privacy disguised as something patriotic.

    However, the authoritative tone has not always aged well. As other types of voices have been allowed into the discussion of good writing, it raises the question of who gave Orwell his authority? In an article about Orwell, Louis Menand rightfully ridicules Orwell's Eurocentric opinion that fascism exists partly because people have strayed from Anglo-Saxon diction.3 Nevertheless, amid Orwell's outdated thinking lies knowledgeable advice to both writers and critical thinkers. Rather than completely dismissing Orwell for his prejudicial views, students could learn to adapt his rules to their cultural voices.

    Diction is spoken or written language.

    "Politics and the English Language" Quotes

    "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible." (Orwell, 1946)

    Orwell saw the ugly side of politics first-hand. He felt that stripping away the disconnect between what political correspondents report and the actions carried out in the name of power could at least make people think about their contribution to the suffering of others.

    "[A]n effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form." (Orwell, 1946)

    Orwell discusses how language and thought rely on each other. He believed that if people were interested in changing the way they wrote, it could change the path of language and, by extension, politics.

    "The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness." (Orwell, 1946)

    Orwell sensed that an overreliance on vague statements spoken with authority would lead to the loss of meaning. When a person is unsure of the meaning of the words they're using, they cannot fully comprehend their reality.

    Orwell wrote "Politics and the English Language" while he was thinking about writing his famous novel, 1984 (1949). "Newspeak" in 1984 is language used by the government. It reflects the theme in "Politics and the English Language" that political speech is used to conceal meaning and dissuade thought.

    Politics and the English Language - Key takeaways

    • "Politics and the English Language" is an essay written by George Orwell published in 1946.
    • Orwell discusses the idea that the English language is being muddied by clichés and euphemisms, contributing to a poor political climate.
    • "Politics and the English Language" offers a list of rules that cuts out vague language and avoids political dishonesty.
    • "Politics and the English Language" relates to the Everyman and has been a popular essay assigned in writing classes.
    • The Eurocentric views expressed by Orwell can be problematic when placed in a broader cultural context.

    1 George Orwell. "Why I Write". orwellfoundation.com. 20222George Orwell "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius". orwellfoundation.com. 20223 Louis Menand. "Honest, Decent, Wrong: The Invention of George Orwell". The New Yorker. 2003
    Frequently Asked Questions about Politics and the English Language

    What is Orwell's purpose in writing "Politics and the English Language"?

    Orwell's purpose in writing "Politics and the English Language" is to spread awareness of problematic trends in modern writing and to offer what he sees as possible solutions.

    When was "Politics and the English Language" written?

    "Politics and the English Language" was written in 1946.

    What is Orwell's argument in 'Politics and the English Language'?

    In "Politics and the English Language" Orwell argues that the English language is becoming muddied by clichés and euphemisms which is contributing to a poor political climate.

    What is the message of "Politics and the English Language"?

    The message in "Politics and the English Language" is that language and thought are connected. By cutting vague statements and clichés out of writing, people would be able to think more clearly. When people can think more clearly, they can avoid political dishonesty.

    What connection does Orwell make between politics and the English language?

    Orwell makes the connection between politics and the English language that vague language conceals meaning. This is important to politics because it is difficult to justify many political actions using clear language.

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