All learned men will remember George Orwell’s timeless essay “Politics and the English Language.” I still recall the first time I heard it, sitting in a lecture hall in Harvard almost exactly twenty years ago while a professor read parts of it aloud. It is still good writing — fresh, vivid and absolutely spot-on, seventy years after it was published. But while we remember the joy and the glory of that little piece, we must also admit that Orwell lost.
That is, his plain intent in publishing that essay was to help roll-back the use of incomprehensible, jargon-laden, double-negative, overly Latinized English diction in modern, educated contexts. But anyone who has read a modern academic paper, or attended a scholarly talk, will tell you that bad English has won. Clarity, brevity and concise expression are not at all prized — nor even much practiced — among the scholars and professors who fancy themselves the intellectual elite.
Bad writing won because it is often a feature, not a bug. Orwell understood this perfectly well. The political writing of his age was a “defense of the indefensible,” which demanded muddy expression if it was to achieve the aim of avoiding having to face the vividly brutal facts of his day — world war, totalitarianism, nuclear bombs. These days, with no world war in recent memory, bad writing serves slightly more prosaic ends in the hands of accredited and would-be intellectuals. Their theories are often some mix of obvious, oblivious, fashionable, simplistic, stupid and just plain wrong. Muddy expression makes up for these faults in so many (perverse) ways, which is why it is so popular.
If daft intellectuals wrote plainly and spoke clearly, then several bad things would happen: (1) Their theories would look less impressive to others, which would erode their prestige and social position. (2) Quite possibly, laymen off the street would be able to catch them in their foolishness and force them to give up their theories, which would be even worse. And (3), their theories would look less impressive to themselves; reading their own specialist literature would be too simple and easy, removing any sense of intense labor or that satisfied feeling of a hard day’s work which might flow from doing their jobs. To sum up: Illusions of importance; evasion of responsibility; and self-delusion — so many ego-assuaging vices can easily be accomplished through the simple use of bad English!
But back to the heart of the thing. I repeat below what is perhaps the best known passage from that entire essay. I do this because, while reading a Wikipedia article the other day, I felt a strong sharp pang of nostalgia which thrust this passage to the top of my mind.
Continue reading “Orwell Lives On”