I was raised on politics and the English language. Or rather, on Politics and the English Language.
That’s the title of George Orwell’s essay on how thought may corrupt language, but language also corrupts thought – and now more than ever it seems.
I studied it in high school in the 60s and was blessed to have a teacher who cared deeply that I write ‘death from above’ and not ‘pacification’. Tom Lawson’s enthusiasm for using the language precisely instead of lazily was zealous; he used Orwell’s essay like a religious text, and we were his disciples.
It’s been decades since I read Politics and the English Language, let alone parsed its every word. But I stumbled across it Monday night when, as so often happens on the internet, I was looking for something else. At that very moment, America’s President was speaking about the riots engulfing his nation.
Here is what he said: “America needs creation, not destruction; cooperation, not contempt; security, not anarchy; healing, not hatred; justice, not chaos. This is our mission, and we will succeed. One hundred per cent, we will succeed. Our country always wins.”
I was struck not only by the biting irony, but the false victory of his words.
But I wasn’t angry or disgusted so much as numb from another torrent of word-like sounds, made with all the appropriate noises, disguised as coherent thoughts.
The fact is, the President doesn’t care what he’s saying, and he doesn’t much care if you do either. They’re just words.
So I turned to Orwell for solace. “The English language,” he wrote “…becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish. But the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.… An effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.… The point is that the process is reversible.”
But is it any more?
Orwell wrote that 75 years ago when words had not been replaced by images as our central form of communication.
But even back in 1946, Orwell claimed that “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.”
Again, this is 2020, when politics is debased beyond the power to shock and not 1946, just one year after Winston Churchill ruled Britannia.
Has our use of language been so debased that it is now hastening its own death?
As Orwell concludes: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns …to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
But maybe not. Because Orwell also concludes: “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.”
So today, when we’re all still at home testing out new habits and improving old, give a kind thought not only to what you say but how you say it.
What first step is more necessary than this?