Why You Should Read Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

George Orwell manages to articulate why people using political buzzword salad is so annoying in one essay.

9 comments

George Orwell manages to articulate why people using political buzzword salad is so annoying in one essay.

About the Essay

Title: “Politics and the English Language”

Author: George Orwell

Published: 1945

Topic: politics, linguistics, philosophy

(You can read “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell for free here)

My Thoughts

I partially credit George Orwell with originally getting me into politics.

Before I read 1984 when I was 15 I had absolutely no interest in anything political. I did not watch the news. I did not know of any politicians besides Trump and Obama and a few others on my peripheral vision and I had zero opinions on them. But reading that book, combined with taking a government class that same year and the subsequent upheaval of 2020 led me to become very interested in it.

So of course I had to read his essay that is explicitly about politics.

I get very exasperated by political discourse and sometimes humanities academia as well because it often feels like people are using big words and buzzwords to sound smart while they say a whole lot of nothing or simply repeat the talking points of whichever group they consider themselves to be a part of. I have been annoyed by this for a long time but I couldn’t really find the words to express what bothered me about it. Luckily Orwell did it for me.

I used to say that it was theoretically possible to English class by simply using big words and long sentences in your essays; you don’t even have to make a point. And this essay explained that in a perfectly eloquent way:

“As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. “

Back to politics: both sides of the aisle have certain buzzwords that they love to use (e.g. “fascist”, “racist”, “dogwhistle”, “accountable”, “cultural Marxism”, “privilege”, “radical left”, “violent”, “actively harming”, “cancel culture”, “systemic”, “ally”, “whiteness”, etc.) which have been redefined or have had their meanings muddled by their contrasting use by different groups. This has led to a lot of debates simply being a matter of semantics and a lot of people using phrases that are commonly used in politics but that simply don’t make sense otherwise.

(I think that Orwell is probably rolling in his grave at the recent prevalence of people “interrogating” their biases)

One of my favorite passages in the essay describes the tendency for people to slip into stringing together buzzwords:

“Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White Papers and the speeches of Under-Secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the 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.”

And also the way Orwell predicted 2020s Twitter:

“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.'”

The Verdict

All in all, I loved this essay and I would highly recommend that you read it. Everything in it rings true today, and is important to consider when being the informed and democratic citizen that you are.

Have you read “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell? If so, what did you think of it?

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9 comments on “Why You Should Read Politics and the English Language by George Orwell”

  1. Despite loving Animal Farm and 1984, I hadn’t come across this essay before. Enjoyed it and your post.

    It’s interesting that some of the phrases Orwell mentions are much less common today, presumably because of the influence of the essay. Today, I would guess, this is a bigger problem in academia and a smaller one in politics. It would be interesting to see an author of similar stature write an update or addendum about today’s use of English.

    I also wonder if the situation today is slightly better than in the early 1950s? A typical political speech or article today may have just as many meaningless phrases, but I think we’ve developed better mental filters with 75+ years of experience. Not that the filters help our public discourse much, but when something is actually well written or said it might have a better chance of being noticed?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked it! Yeah, I’m not sure– a lot of times on social media I’ll see people using complete word salad that is usually taken from academia stuff. Politics is also always filled with truisms. I do think people can tell when something is well-written though

      Like

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