Saturday, March 18, 2017

George Orwell ~ "The English Language"

George Orwell (1903 – 1950) was the pseudonym of Eric Blair, who was born in India, the son of Richard Blair and Ida Limouzin Blair.  His father was a British civil servant.  In 1904, Ida Blair moved with the children to England; Eric did not see his father for eight years.  He was educated at Eton but did not attend university.  Instead he served as an imperial policeman in Burma from 1922 to 1927.  His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, is an account of his life in poverty, an experience he undertook in sympathy with the poor.  He wrote Animal Farm as a fable depicting the perversion of socialism.

The following excerpt is from “Politics and the English Language”

Most people who bother with the matter al all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.  Our civilisation is decadent, and our language–so the argument runs–must inevitably share in the general collapse.  It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes.  Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purpose.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes:  it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that writer.  But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.  A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

The point is that the process is reversible.  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 that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. 

I think the following rules will cover most cases:
i.                Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii.              Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii.             If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv.             Never use the passive where you can use the active
v.              Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi.             Break any of the rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase–some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse–into the dustbin where it belongs.
1946, 1947

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