The Unoriginality of Orwell’s Critique of Language

I had always imagined that the ideas Orwell so tediously overstates and disingenuously defends in his megafamous 1946 essay“Politics and the English Language” (henceforth P&EL), though impractical and dishonest, were original with him. But I discovered by accident recently that they aren’t.

The best-known theme of P&EL concerns how long words encourage intellectual laziness, cloaking thought in airy abstraction and lending a polysyllabic patina of respectability to obnoxious political and legal ideas. Orwell illustrated by translating clear and simple prose into repulsive abstract jargon. Like this:

Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognised by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the grey matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when he shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard.

But that, although it feels like Orwell, is not from P&EL. I came upon it while reading Chapter 8 of G.K. Chesterton’s influential book Orthodoxy (Bodley Head, London, 1908).

It was 38 years later that P&EL made the same point about long words, illustrating it in exactly the same way, by translating an invented statement about harsh punishment into wordy blather:

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.’ Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

Orwell had read Chesterton. In 1945, a year before P&EL, he cited him in an essay called “Notes on Nationalism.” Calling political Catholicism “the form of nationalism most closely corresponding to Communism,” Orwell describes Chesterton as “a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda.”

Orthodoxy is Chesterton’s attempt to explain how and why he came to see the Roman Catholic church as the one truly satisfying worldview and philosophy of life. He addresses the topic in prose so splendid that I often browse it for pleasure. His sentences are almost like music in their emotional power.

Not that I share Chesterton’s religious views: I’m an atheist, and regard the Catholic church as a corrupt organization responsible for great harm. But I revel in the intelligence and verve of Chesterton’s ruminations on paranoia, fairies, science, heresy, or morality, despite not being moved a millimeter in the direction of his faith. One can admire the skill of a great driver without wanting to travel to his chosen destination.

Orwell, privately agnostic, was publicly a lifelong Anglican, and Catholics were (along with women, homosexuals, communists, and Jews) one of the groups against whom he harbored prejudice. Hence his hostility toward Chesterton’s pro-Catholic polemics. But he seems to have felt more friendly toward Chesterton’s critique of the lazy use of long words.

The early 20th century saw many clarion calls for plain language; Ben Yagoda cites some in his fascinating book The Sound on the Page. (Strunk, of course, was one.) Orwell was not presenting an original insight into linguistic deceit and the dangers of fancy verbiage. He merely rewarmed ideas that others had advocated for half a century.

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