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  • Feb 21 / 2009
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Watch Your Language!

The Lying Ways of Politicians

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. . . . — George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is one of my favorite essays on writing. I reread it regularly, and always try to keep in mind the handy list of no-nos at the end. Orwell’s appendix to 1984, excerpted below,  is a good companion piece:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. — George Orwell, “The Principles of Newspeak”

Orwell’s warnings about the abuse of language by politicians are as applicable today as they were six decades ago. The language of Bill and Hillary Clinton is especially Orwellian, as I pointed out in two Behind The Headlines commentaries ten years ago: “Beware Politics of Meaninglessness” and “President Clinton’s Admission of Guilt.” Their protege, Barack Obama, seems determined to surpass his mentors in the sinister art of obfuscation.

“I’m a master at deceivin’,
At wigglin’, waffllin’, weavin’;
And when I create
A socialist state,
You’ll have change you can believe in.”

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