George Orwell on How Political Language Deceives and Corrupts, and What We Can Do About It

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Language, spoken or written, can be used for a wide array of purposes. It can be used to rally the troops, to spark a revolution, to righteously insult an asshole, to evoke laughter, or, most egregious of all, to deceive the masses.

George Orwell, in his classic essay Politics and the English Language, explores the different ways in which language can be mangled and manipulated to serve any end.

Excessive verbosity, for example, or the use of what he calls “dying metaphors,” “pretentious diction,” and “meaningless words” are all tactics used to hide the real purpose behind a message.

Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments. 

“This is certainly the case,” for example, is a phrase which can be used by politicians to comfort their citizens, but in reality, those making this kind of statement are far from certain about anything.

The media often manipulates language to make us fear something that is not a true threat, or to make us ignore something that is.

We are attracted to the eloquent and the loud without paying attention to the meaning which lurks behind their words.

Politicians with their backs against the wall can save themselves with a few patriotic-sounding phrases and fiery speeches, even if their words are vacuous.

It’s all for show.

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-stained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

On the Purpose of “Political Language”

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Orwell’s view was that political language had to become detached from ordinary English because if it didn’t, its stupidity and malevolence would become painfully obvious.

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air,the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and set trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements

Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Language turns to abstractions rather than simple, vivid images of what the speaker is really saying when he or she is trying to deceive others.

This reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s point that, “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”

If we can be made to forget that we are talking about war and slaughter, and instead be made to think in purely metaphorical and numerical games, anything can be justified.

When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared claims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

What, if anything, can be done about this? Can we improve our ability to clearly relay our own messages, and can we ensure that we aren’t deceived by the language games of others, particularly those in power?

Orwell’s Solution

This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

The message of Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is to be careful about what you write and say, and to be conscious of what you read and hear.

This is particularly important during election time and war time (which is to say, always): Politicians will spout as much nonsense as they have to in order to scavenge as many votes as possible, and to ensure that the public is blind to their real motivations.

The ability to recognize when someone is trying to slip something by you is essential.

Unfortunately, most don’t take the time to critically analyze what is said in the media. The masses are stuck in their echo-chamber, thoughtlessly shoveling down so-called “facts” delivered by their favorite “news” provider.

And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

We may laugh at those who were deceived by outrageous propaganda strategies of the past, but we fail to realize that propaganda has not died out, it has changed form: “Preservation through transformation” (Reva Siegel).

Orwell believed that instinct can help us with this problem to some extent, if we would just pay a bit of attention, but he laid out six rules “one can rely on when instinct fails,” just in case.

(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 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.

(iv) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. 

These rules sound elementary, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

If language can indeed corrupt thought, both our own and others’, we should be intensely careful about how we use it, and how it is used on us.

One cannot change this all in a moment but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.