Literary Dude: George Orwell
A timeless essay, "Politics and the English Language," the importance of clear and concise expression, and the ways governments and politicians use and abuse language.
Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly
Betray the influence of his warm intent.
Because he taught us what the actual meant
The vicious winter grips its prey less tightly.
Not all were grateful for his help, one finds,
For how they hated him, who huddled with
The comfort of a quick remedial myth
Against the cold world and their colder minds.
We die of words. For touchstones he restored
The real person, real event or thing;
--And thus we see not war but suffering
As the conjunction to be most abhorred.
He shared with a great world, for greater ends,
That honesty, a curious cunning virtue
You share with just the few who don’t desert you.
A dozen writers, a half-a-dozen friends.
A moral genius. And truth-seeking brings
Sometimes a silliness we view askance,
Like Darwin playing his bassoon to plants;
He too had lapses, but he claimed no wings
While those who drown a truth’s empiric part
In dithyramb* or dogma turn frenetic;
--Than whom no writer could be less poetic
He left this lesson for all verse, all art.
--Robert Conquest (1969)
*A wild or inflated speech or writing.
Robert Conquest’s tribute poem, “George Orwell,” was written in l969 during the Cold War when the prospect of nuclear winter was always present. Now, with the return of the Cold War or something similar, Orwell and his special talent as an essayist and truth-teller are especially relevant. 
Resistant to any type of corporate mentality, Orwell crafted essays to prompt and and press readers toward independence of vision, uncommon common sense, and integrity of mind. This motive informs Orwell’s best novels, his political satires Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which secured his place in literary history. But his achievement as author of these novels has prevented us from gauging the full power and richness of the work he produced in the same decade in essays, newspaper columns, review articles and book reviews…what Orwell did in these years as an essayist is one of the major achievements of modern literature. (p. 77)
Orwell was perceptive about some of the character qualities that contributed to his work as an essayist. In his essay, Why I Write (1946) he said:
I knew I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.
What follows is a short appreciation of one of Orwell’s most compelling essays and some thoughts on how the essay relates to unpleasant facts in today’s struggle between democracies and authoritarian regimes.
The Intersection of Writing, Thought and Government
In 1946, Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language. Here is the essay’s brilliant opening:
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental anachronism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument we shape for our own purposes.
Orwell deftly enlists us in his argument—if we read any further we belong to his club of “people who bother with the matter [the English language] at all.” He then articulates the “general assumption” that “we cannot by conscious action do anything about it”—something he completely disproves in the essay. The third point, that civilization`s degrading contributes to the collapse of language (and writing) becomes something different in the essay: Orwell shows that speech and writing, particularly by governments, is a cause, not just an effect, of debased civilized norms. The essay demonstrates that language is, in fact, “an instrument we shape for our own purposes.”
Politics and the English Language seems to be a cheerful argument for better writing hygiene, but it is much more than that. The essay unites two themes: the importance of clear and precise written expression and the uses of language by governments and politicians to advance their agendas. These agendas can range from regime perpetuation to disguising ineptitude to genocide or combinations of the these and other goals.
Orwell analyzes five passages from two leading professors, a magazine essay, a Communist party pamphlet and a letter to the editor. Before pointing out specific problems with each one, he provides this overview:
Each of these passages has faults of its own, but quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially any kind of political writing.
The essay, to the joy of generations of English teachers, rails in lively ways against cliches, awkward constructions, circumlocutions and other writing problems in sections attacking “Dying Metaphors,” “Pretentious Diction,” “Meaningless Words.” The essay also explains the cost to writers of imprecise writing and defective usages:
By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader, but for yourself.
Orwell detonates the “general assumption” described in the opening of the essay—that writing and expression cannot be improved by “conscious action”—by showing exactly how to do it:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
The exploration of the “special connection” between politics and the debasement of language is the heart of the essay. As Orwell describes it, when “some tired hack on the platform [is] mechanically repeating the familiar phrases,” we develop mental lassitude. This produces in the audience (the electorate), “a reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, [that] is at any rate favorable to political conformity." Thus, the status quo sought by politicians in power is perpetuated.
Orwell drives the point home:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
What We Can Learn from Orwell Today
There is persuasive evidence that Orwell’s thinking enhances our understanding of events today. In her essay, They’re Not Human Beings—Ukraine and the Words that Lead to Mass Murder, in the June 2022 issue of The Atlantic, historian and journalist Anne Appelbaum describes the connections between language and Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and how the war has been prosecuted.
The Russian government and media (there appears to be no difference between the two) described the invasion of Ukraine in language asserting that Ukraine is not really a nation, that Russia had “no choice” except to invade, that the conflict is not a war but rather a “strategic military operation,” and that the war is for the purpose of “de-Nazification.” Each of these phrases seeks to justify evil. Many of these concepts were described in writing by Russian President Vladimir Putin before the invasion.
Appelbaum argues that language such as this does not just enable the war and genocide, it is essential to it. Appelbaum describes the relationship between language and behavior in words that could have been written by Orwell:
In Putin’s language and the language of most Russian television commentators, the Ukrainians have no agency. They can’t make choices for themselves. They can’t elect a government for themselves. They aren’t even human—they are “Nazis.”
Politics and the English Language asserts that in 1946, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” This is true in the speech and writing justifying Russia’s war on Ukraine which increasingly involves acts of genocide.
Appelbaum extends Orwell’s argument about the language used by governments and how it influences their behavior:
The relationship between genocidal language and genocidal behavior is not automatic or even predictable. Human beings can insult one another, demean one another, and verbally abuse one another without trying to kill one another. But while not every use of hate speech leads to genocide, all genocides have been preceded by hate speech.
Appelbaum and Orwell remind us that how we say what we say and write matters. This is particularly true of governments. Imprecise or cloudy language contributes to imprecise or cloudy thinking or worse in the case of authoritarian regimes. It also induces that “reduced state of consciousness” favorable to political conformity that Orwell described. We need to pay attention. The citizen’s duty is to be as watchful and thoughtful as possible about what political leaders say or write.
1. Orwell’s life resonates because it demonstrated commitment to the values articulated in his writings. As a young man, Orwell was an imperial policeman in what was then Burma. Later, he wrote effectively about the evils of imperialism in his essay, Shooting an Elephant. He portrayed the experiences of struggling English coal miners in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and of the underclass in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933.) Orwell was wounded while fighting Franco’s fascist forces in Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War and wrote Homage to Catalonia (1938), one of the best nonfiction accounts of life in armed combat.
2. There are collections of Orwell’s essays in various lengths. A Collection of Essays (Harcourt Brace & Company, New York 1946) contains essays on Dickens, Kipling and Gandhi, and Orwell’s classic, Such, Such Were the Joys…, about his miserable experience as a boarding student on scholarship in an elite English school. Few other writers could begin an essay this way:
Soon after I arrived at Crossgates (not immediately, but after a week or two, just when I seemed to be settling into the routine of school life) I began wetting my bed. I was now aged eight, so that this was a reversion to a habit which I must have grown out of at least four years earlier.
3. Orwell’s literary assault on authoritarianism inspired readers outside the United Kingdom. In his book, Why Orwell Matters (Basic Books 2002), Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) described Orwell this way:
But this gaunt and aloof person underwent his two crucial epiphanies of Burma and Catalonia; and his work in its smuggled form was later to kindle a spark in the Siberias of the world, warming the hearts of shivering Poles and Ukrainians and helping to melt the permafrost of Stalinism. If Lenin had not uttered the maxim ‘the heart on fire and the brain on ice,” it might have suited Orwell, whose passion and generosity were rivalled only by his detachment and reserve. 
Why Orwell Matters may be one of the best secondary sources on Orwell who has attained a sort of secular sainthood that obscures who he was a person. Hitchens devotes separate chapters in his efficiently-written book to aspects of Orwell’s thinking, for example, “Orwell and Empire,” “Orwell and the Left,” “Orwell and the Right,” “Orwell and America,” etc. An oversimplified takeaway might be that Orwell was neither right about everything nor admirable in every way as a person, but history has proven him right about the big issues of his time on which he expressed himself clearly and fearlessly.
4. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with books or essays advocating techniques for better writing. However, the prescriptive or scolding tone of some of these books can be off-putting. This may explain the enduring appeal of The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. The book, which originated as a Cornell University English class handout, is helpful without being didactic. Contact the English teacher in your service area for additional recommendations.
5. Appelbaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. She is a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former member of the editorial board of The Washington Post. Her book, Gulag: A History, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.