Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror


George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” at 70

The relevance of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” to our election.

Posted Aug 16, 2016

Wikimedia Commons
George Orwell
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Seventy years ago, George Orwell published his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language." The 1946 essay, which you can read here in its entirety, appeared between his two most famous books, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

The essay is often discussed in writing courses for its advocacy of a simple, clear style—hence the “English Language” part of the title. However, in this election year, it is worth paying attention to Orwell’s argument that politicians use a variety of rhetorical devices to downplay, obscure, misdirect, or otherwise disguise what they are saying in order to make it more palatable. This is the “Politics” part of the title. In Orwell’s words, “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.”

Expanding on this theme, Orwell wrote:

In our time [i.e., shortly after the end of World War II], political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless 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 sent 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.

As the election approaches, the 70th anniversary of "Politics and the English Language" reminds us to pay close attention to politicians’ rhetoric, and to ask ourselves what nasty thoughts lie behind their words.

Image Source:

George Orwell’s 1933 Press Card Photo

Wikimedia Commons

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