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Wintry conscience

  • 01 July 2006

The war against Iraq reminds us that thugs in office have had their way with the English language. Killing women and children becomes ‘collateral damage’. Their guerrilla fighters become our ‘terrorists’, and foreign occupation is rechristened ‘liberation’.

Better than anyone, George Orwell, born 100 years ago (25 June 1903), alerted us to the ways in which politics can twist language to suit its purposes. Reprinted in many standard anthologies, his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) was one of the most read essays of the past half-century. Trouble is, the thugs on their way to power read him too, and turned his lessons on their heads. They learned to throw dust or dazzle into the air, to disguise what was going on, or else they lied sincerely so that people thought they must be telling the truth. The spin masters, alas, are all graduates of Orwell’s school.

Nevertheless, George Orwell remains a necessary read for anyone wanting to be a worthwhile citizen, because honest political writing encourages good citizenship. Bad prose makes it harder to think straight. His main aim, he said, was to develop political writing into an art. Hard thinking about language lay behind the popular success of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, giving us expressions like ‘thought police’ and ‘doublethink’ and ‘Big Brother’, as well as satirical mock slogans such as ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’.

In his least regarded book—ignored by many biographers—The English People, he boiled the rules of good writing down to two: concrete words are better than abstract ones, and the shortest way of saying anything is always the best. Then he expanded this advice a little:

Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up even for a sentence. He is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective, against the encroachment of Latin and Greek, and, above all, against the worn-out phrases and dead metaphors with which the language is cluttered up.

You can add to this list of advice Orwell’s liking for sharp similes, a hallmark of his prose style. In ‘Politics and the English Language’ there are four similes that pull you up with their freshness. Example: an accumulation of stale phrases chokes a writer ‘like tea-leaves blocking a sink’.

This particular simile is a window into Orwell’s world. It’s an affirmation of his contact with the experience of everyday