Politics in the English Language

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Writing

The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

Photo: Getty

Surf Style
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
                        —George Orwell

Lately, it seems like everyone I know is on edge. All the conversations I’ve had for the past month—whether back and forth in e-mail, on the phone, or chitchat over dinner—devolve into the same sentiment: We can’t wait until it’s midnight on November 4th.

Election Day in the United States seems like it should be simply that—an election for a single country. Period. No exclamation point. But at this historical moment, after all we’ve rained on the rest of the world for the past eight years—from militaristic horrors to the current kabuki economic meltdown—it sure seems to me that this is turning into something of a world election. Many, many people are biting their fingernails, crossing their fingers, and holding their collective breaths.

This week, Gretchen Rubin’s blog for her Happiness Project((www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2008/10/staying-calm-fo.html)) offered four tips for staying calm and dealing with pre-election jitters. I have been a repeat offender of the first item on her list—being too plugged into the 24/7 online news—well, actually I take off eight hours for sleep.

I confess: My guilty pleasure has been an obsession with Sarah Palin. Ever since late August, when she left her Russia-viewing house on a lake on the outskirts of Wasilla (the alleged meth capital of Alaska) for the Republican National Convention, everything about her has been sickeningly fascinating to me. The crazily thin political résumé for someone elevated to Vice-Presidential candidate. The five different colleges in as many years to get a single bachelor’s degree in journalism. Hello? The evangelical church-hopping. Mr. Iron Dog as spouse. A passel of kids with strange names (Track? Trig?) who seem to be most useful as political props whether it’s unwed pregnant teen or special-needs baby—and do any of the school-age ones actually go to school? But what gets to me most of all about Sarah Palin, this creature, this creation of our truly decadent political media? The way she uses (and abuses) the English language.  

At least once a day, I find myself agog from the incomprehensible gibberish of nearly everything that comes out of her mouth.  Apparently, I’m not the only one((politicalhumor.about.com/od/sarahpalin/a/palin-top-10.htm)). In fact, her manner of expressing herself (if you can call it that) has already been christened with its own noun: Palinism((www.opednews.com/articles/Palinism-A-New-Word-by-Ginger-McClemons-080908-286.html)). And I see on this web site it’s already morphed into a verb, to palinize. Should we start a betting pool to see if this makes it into Webster’s by 2010?

Over at Wordle((www.wordle.net/gallery/wrdl/283845/Sarah_Palin_Word_Cloud)), you can at least have fun making beautiful word clouds out of her utterances.

All of this got me to thinking about the writer, George Orwell((en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_orwell)), and what many consider to be his most influential essay,  “Politics and the English Language((www.calvinvanhoek.com/articles/2007/04/politics-english-language)).” It was originally published in the April 1946 issue of the journal Horizon just after he’d finished Animal Farm and when Nineteen Eighty-Four was still a rough draft. Sixty years later, it rings with prescient truth about the conscious and overtly political use of language, the fundamental power in all words, and the importance of clarity and concreteness in writing.

Orwell starts with the assumption that when a civilization is decadent (and who can argue ours is not?), its language inevitably shares in that general collapse. “The English language,” he wrote, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Wow.

And it’s almost as if he had a crystal ball and saw Sarah Palin’s winking eye in it when he wrote this: Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated hen house.”

Orwell goes on to persuasively make the case that vague political writing (and, by extension, speaking) is always an attempt to defend indefensible values. In fact, he ardently believes that there is a connection between bad prose and inhumane behaviors and ideologies.

George Orwell—the pseudonym for Eric Blair—was known for his leftist political views. Living and working in Burma turned him against imperialism and colonialism; research for his book, Down and Out in Paris and London, made him a socialist. In another essay, “Why I Write”,((orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw)) Orwell says: Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”

Political discourse in these latter days of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election has sunk so far below low that words too numerous to count have been bled of their original meanings until they are now, it seems to me, close to if not already dead. Pick a few, any few. Words like terrorist, maverick, socialist. I’m sure you can make your own lengthy list of favorites. Orwell has much to say about the dangers of this phenomenon as well. 

All these years after it was written, “Politics and the English Language” remains smart and, unfortunately, all too relevant. I can hardly do justice to its wisdom in this post.

Anyone who professes a desire to write—let alone live in a democratic republic—should give it a read. For now, quoting George Orwell, I’ll leave you with his six rules for writers:

i.   Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii.  Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
v.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Now that I’m done typing, I’m going back to crossing my fingers.

Nancy Flynn
Follow me