On the 50th anniversary of Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language, Andrew Marr finds political English in good health—thanks, in part, to Orwell's warnings. Power and brutality still hide behind evasive language, but are now more likely to do so in corporate cultureby Andrew Marr / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way…” That was how George Orwell began “Politics and the English Language,” published 50 years ago this April. It was one of his most subtly influential essays, an almost holy text for many thousands of journalists and other writers throughout the English speaking world. In it Orwell made a thrilling call to arms, shouting out for clear, clean English. In the essay, and through the example of his own vigorous prose, he demonstrated that the state of the language was a political question. Lizard-eyed power hides behind pretentious sentences. Thought corrupts language and language corrupts thought; and to reform the language is to reform politics too. Half a century later, this remains a simple but radical test of our political culture. How do we shape up? Is the language still in a bad way?
Before addressing this directly, it is worthwhile rehearsing the strength of the original essay. It was a curious but gripping mixture of practical criticism of bad prose, plus rules too strict for most writers to adhere to (“Never use a long word where a short one will do… If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out…”), plus angry polemic. The rules have had the biggest impact. Printed first in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon magazine, the essay was circulated almost immediately by David Astor to Observer journalists. After that it influenced many newspaper style guides, from Keith Waterhouse’s Daily Mirror Style to the in-house Economist rulebook.
Conservative admirers of Orwell tend to regard him as a defender of stability and orthodoxy in English, a wiry embodiment of Fowler’s King’s English whose views on split infinitives were as firm as his views on Soviet Russia. It is not true. In his essay, Orwell declared that correct grammar and syntax “are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear” and he was similarly relaxed about the arrival of Americanisms. He was hunting different game from the trustees of “Heritage English.” His target was not linguistic change or lack of orthodoxy, but sloppy, pretentious and overly abstract thinking, composed of ready-made phrases “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen house.” These, he notes, are often built up of pretentious latinate words (“render inoperative,” “ameliorate”) or dead metaphors (“take up the cudgels,” “Achilles’…