Jimmy Breck-McKye

Developing opinions

Politics and the English Language: Micro-review

Orwell believed diseased language was both a cause and effect of totalitarianism. Before he explored these ideas in 1984, his 1945 essay Politics and the English Language proposed that modern English, full of jargon and complexity, allowed politicians to conceal their intentions behind euphemisms and doubletalk.

He argues modern writers are too lazy to use concise, specific language, plumping instead to string together prefabricated phrases and clichéd metaphors. Our language has become less “concrete”, more “abstract”, and such vague prose glosses over the horrors of empire and totalitarianism.

The essay shines when it isolates the specific traits of bureaucratese – it’s easy to label language with subjective terms like “verbose” or “woolly”, much harder to identify objectively its bad habits – passive tenses, weak verbs, noncommittal hedging – so we can devise plain, simple rules to do better.

What’s weaker is the ‘Politics’ part. Orwell seems more interested in the language, and it isn’t clear all his linguistic annoyances really matter. Platitudes and long-windedness are worth stamping out, but are they actually instrumental in hiding oppression? As in 1984, he speculates that a corrupt language might change the way we think for the worse, but never fully elucidates how.

These micro-reviews surmise a book, essay or work in 200-300 words. I’m writing them to practice slimming down my prose.