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George Orwell: Politics and the English Language (1946) (alexgolec.github.io)
206 points by yk on Oct 30, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 62 comments

The more I read Orwell's essays of the 1940s the more they seem like a master class in how to write, which means they are also a master class in how to think. The combination of clarity and impact in his style is so powerful that it's actually shocking. Moreover, it seems to be aging very well, so Orwell's reputation (specifically for this) has been steadily increasing.

Other great examples:



Is anyone writing today with that particular quality (i.e. that combination of clarity and directness)? All the candidates I can think of fall far short of it, and only clarify how distinctive Orwell is.

Edit: It's also interesting that this material is now widely seen as classic when at the time it was mere pamphleteering. To my knowledge, Orwell wasn't thought of as a hack—he was respected—but this sort of writing was regarded, even by him, as throwaway work, with a sense that it was too bad that circumstances didn't allow him to do better. (He touches on that in "Why I Write", the first link above.) It's a common theme in the history of art for high-status things to start out as low-status things; this may be a case of that.

Edit 2: Another interesting thing—he was writing this stuff about current events in more or less real time. That's a very murky pond to be looking into. I would very much like to know what it was that gave Orwell that degree of insight.

> I would very much like to know what it was that gave Orwell that degree of insight.

Orwell said it himself, in Why I Write: he believed he has a "power of facing unpleasant facts".

By all accounts that sometimes made him difficult company. This focus on negativity probably contributed to his bouts of melancholy.

But this power, I believe, came from always putting people first. Unlike most intellectuals he never fell in love with his own intellect, or with the admiration of "honorable" people. Maybe he romanticized the common people a little too much, especially early in his career, but for him it was never an abstraction. I am not sure if there can be any explanation for this. That's just the way he was. He never stayed inside the lines drawn for him, not the traditional ones of class, nor the ones that one might draw around "radical" intellectuals.

So as a policeman in Burma, he got to know the locals and began to understand the horrors of imperialism. Later in life, he traveled to Catalonia to participate in the anarchist revolution as a common soldier, and saw what was beautiful, and ugly, about that. And Orwell saw firsthand how Stalin was engaged in pragmatic and brutal geopolitics, and was not the center of some worldwide proletarian movement.

Anyway, as you can see I'm kind of a fan.

Yes, and there is a special class of "unpleasant facts" that Orwell was particularly adept at facing: facts which contradict one's preferred ideology. In this he was remarkably strong and remarkably rare; a refusal to face such facts practically defines political discourse.

Compare that to someone like Hitchens (who comes to mind because he wrote a book-length homage to Orwell and clearly identified with him), who was more typical (and more shallow) in refusing to concede so much as an atom to his enemies.

Even more remarkable is that Orwell could critique ideology without slipping into "on the one hand, on the other hand" wishy-washiness. If you look at contemporary discourse, that's what nearly everyone who isn't a strong partisan does, and it's a false note of its own.

Christopher Hitchens has a few hour long talks recorded on youtube about his book 'Why Orwell matters' and explains what gave him that kind of insight. 1984 was widely distributed in the Soviet underground and those who read it could not figure out how Orwell understood perfectly what life under Stalin was like without having experienced it himself.

Somebody today with that kind of directness and clarity would be John Ralston Saul, who advocates writing in clear language. Voltaire's Bastards was written in the 90s and is very much still relevant today.

If you're like me and prefer reading print books, there's an excellent (and very comprehensive) collection of Orwell's letters, essays and journalism. It's slightly difficult to track down but worth the effort.


There's also the 20-volume, 8500-page Complete Works, which I first saw on the bookshelf of Christopher Hitchens in some interview video. Much more difficult to find [0].

[0] http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/162699.article

Thanks! I've been looking for something just like this and ended up getting stuck in a maze—there are a lot of uncompelling editions out there. I'm going to try to track this one down.

gruseom asks, Is there anyone writing today with anything like that quality (i.e. that combination of clarity and directness)?

Steven Pinker is attempting to advocate for more clarity and directness in writing. I think his rather long lecture on MIT video, "Communicating Science and Technology in the 21st Century,"


has been submitted to Hacker News before. In text, I see Pinker has a shorter work, possibly transcribed from a different lecture, "The Writing Code,"


that discusses what makes writing distinct from speech (Pinker knows this even better than Orwell, as a linguist) and how to revise prose.

Pinker references the book Clear and Simple as the Truth at the end of his talk. It's one of my favorites: http://www.amazon.com/Clear-Simple-Truth-Writing-ebook/dp/B0...

You might be looking to read in the vein of "creative non-fiction". Many practitioners, at least the ones I tend to appreciate, also had careers as journalists. Into Thin Air was a mammothly famous example.

If you're as turned off by the formatting of this page as I am, I'm currently working on a CSS framework to beautifully display longform text.

As luck would have it, this essay was my test case:


I was surprised to read this comment because the post links... to your page. What was the original link?

You need left margin or left padding. It's really awkward without it. Also max-width on the content please.

edit: Thanks for the update. Looks really nice.

On Chrome you can use an extension like iReader to format it nicely:


Yours does look a little nicer, though. You should make it an extension.

Readability handles it well: http://www.readability.com/articles/mmpx1oek

This looks great, thanks!

it looks really nice! is there a way to see the source code on github or similar?


This is gorgeous.

Wow, amazing! :)

..and you somehow forget the most important feature, bar none:

    p { max-width: 30em; }

What browser are you using? I believe I implemented the max-width using a container div rather than putting restrictions on the p elements.

Timely post, considering the insanity I was just handed by my campus Social Justice society on my way inside the student union building. It's full of newspeak, and openly calls for the suppression and censorship of speech, literature and music on campus and contains unclear/vague threats of punishment to anybody "who benefits from promoting patriarchal attitudes and relations of power that were inflicted here by colonists."

Colonists? Where do you live?

I wonder what he'd say about memes. They seem to be the ultimate self-reinforcing de-evolution of language.

In many ways, it seems like he is talking about memes, just the memes of his own time.

   But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of
   worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and
   are merely used because they save people the trouble of
   inventing phrases for themselves.

I don't know about that. At least memes don't pretend to be anything else than they are. They are the unabashed verbal and visual equivalent of musical jingles, things designed to grab your attention and stick in your head, but nobody is suggesting that jingles are equivalent to Beethoven.

Corporate PowerPoint-talk is the spiritual heir of what Orwell is mocking in his rewrite of the Old Testament passage. An ever-growing wall of "strategic" abstractions and vaguely Latin buzzwords is used to hide the debilitating lack of meaning and power that plagues the days of almost every mid-level manager at any established company.

I agree they aren't intended to be high quality, but because of their ease of use and mimicry, they are often used in place of actually formulating a thought or statement which is similar to the themes in Orwell's piece.

  But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt
  thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation 
  even among people who should and do know better.

When people say "epic", I hear "doubleplusgood". When I'm a bad mood I can't even stand "awesome"... it's used way to often, and rarely for things that inspire awe even in the speaker.

It depends what you mean by meme. In the original sense as used by Richard Dawkins, yes, hackneyed phrases are memes. But the now-common usage, as in Internet meme is more specific than that. It's more like an inside nerd joke - the kind that is supposed to get funnier with relentless repetition.

This post on Language Log identifies ways in which Orwell violated his own rules in the essay.


Well, this is perhaps the way we should write code too:

"What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?"

One of my favorite essays and even more relevant today than when Orwell wrote it. ("Enemy combatants", "right-sizing", "Patriot Act") I think the effect in business is even greater, partly because the bar for good business speech and writing is so low.

I wrote a post inspired by Orwell's essay called How Your High School English Teacher is Ruining Your Proposals to vent my frustration over language that obfuscates rather than clarifies, whether intentionally or just due to laziness. (http://www.mimiran.com/proposals/how-your-high-school-englis...)

I've admired this essay of Orwell's since I first read it years ago, and have striven to shed stale metaphors and pretense from my writing ever since. I wonder how well I have succeeded.

Surprised to see such a seminal essay on the top of HN. I'm sure most people here will have read this before ... but, hey, always a good re-read.

It happens fairly often:

See the previous submissions: https://www.hnsearch.com/search#request/submissions&q=Orwell...

How old do you think the average HN reader is? Or is this covered in some kind of CS class?

I think the average user on this site is pretty literate. Easily a quarter of the top posts are non-CS related.

"The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation."

Obviously, we need to deincentivize that.

"one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase ... into the dustbin, where it belongs."

> into the dustbin

The irony being that this is one of the worst kind of cliches, proving that Orwell had no idea what he was talking about.

This was my first ever reading assignment at university, for an International Relations class of all things!

I spent the next 5 years introducing it to others as a a precursor to any copy-editing sessions.

I'm about to go do something, but wanted to be somewhat critical; the result will probably be a bit all over the place and incoherent:

The irony of this post, of course, is that it decries the evolution of language while praising the evolved parts of the language.

Orwell says, ‘… while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.’ This as if dead metaphors simply materialized overnight, and never lived in the middle class. Unsurprisingly, several of the “dying metaphors” he cites are at this point in time essentially dead (Achilles' heel and hotbed, for instance).

He leads with “Most people who bother with the matter at 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.” It's immediately evident, I suppose, that Orwell is a writer, not a scientist. Who is defined as bothering with the matter at all? “Most” is quite the weasel word, isn't it? A case study in phrasing things in a way that you can't really disagree with them. I'm a self-and-by-others-described lover the English language, and misuse and misspelling of words and phrases annoys me as much as text that is too complicated to follow, but I don't think it means the “English language is in a bad way”, any more than it did then. But then I'm simply not one of the “most”, I suppose, by virtue of disagreeing.

“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 individual writer.”

Let's grant that the language is declining. Is this assertion really clear? To whom is this clear? It's certainly not clear to me. It isn't clear that either side is true, or that it is false: indeed, the decline, or evolution, as I would put it, of language is likely inextricably intertwined with politics and economics and technological evolution and society.

He addresses this immediately after, saying “But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely”, and in doing so he renders his previous statement pointless, filler, not a meaningless word but a meaningless phrase!

To boot, he says: “Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority.” His hope for curing the language is the conscious action of a minority, but the decline of language cannot be due to the bad influence of a minority?

Orwell makes good points at times here, I think, with respect to overly ornate language that does nothing to clarify its own content. And he gives some reasonable guidelines to boot. But he extrapolates these smaller conclusions to bigger ones that are unlikely to be true, and presents them in a such a way that you don't realize that he's weaseling out of truly concluding anything—he simply postulates. Even when he does make good points about using language to defend the indefensible, the idea that this is some sort of novel discovery that was particularly bad in the 40s—or is now—is unfathomably foolish.

“I should expect to find -- this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify -- that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.”

What is deterioration, pray tell? What makes a language worse? Did a change in instruments in the second half of the twentieth century make our music worse? Our great musicians? Did the emergence of Ruby or Python make our programs worse? Our programmers? By what metric?

Really investigating the concept of worse or better when it comes to such abstract things as language is incredibly difficult. Distinguishing worse from different is incredibly difficult unless maybe you're comparing two things that were conceived at the exact same moment—and even then, your judgement is specific to the now, not to forever.

“Look back through this essay,” Orwell says self-deprecatingly, “and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.” Conveniently, this makes 90% of the essay immune to criticism. Another weaseling.

“Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists.”

I'm afraid I must report to Mr Orwell that 67 years later, these metaphors are alive and well—or, more likely, dead.

Is our English today “worse” than it was 50 years ago? If not, was it a small cadre of noble writers who saved us? If the decline of language was arrested, was that because the language stopped declining, or simply because on this end, decline doesn't really look like decline—just movement? And if it is worse, then how? All of the complaints he's making seem to be equally valid today, but not particularly more so.

People have been trying to make points without having to really justify themselves for ages, and they will continue to for many years to come. It happens in politics, yes. But it seems that it also happens in essays about politics and the English language.

    The irony of this post, of course, is that it decries the
    evolution of language while praising the evolved parts of 
    the language.
He decries one aspect of the evolution of language, the aspect which just hides meaning. And it seems to me, that objectively there is a incentive for many stakeholders to disguise the inherent meaning of their message, either to appear more disruptive in whichever space they move, or to straight out lie by misunderstanding.

    What is deterioration, pray tell? What makes a language 
    worse? Did a change in instruments in the second half 
    of the twentieth century make our music worse? Our 
    great musicians? Did the emergence of Ruby or Python 
    make our programs worse? Our programmers? By what 
Completely unrelated, but to use Cory Doctorow's [1] argument, it probably is. His argument is, that electric guitars enabled a four man band to play a concert. So at the start of the 20th century you need to be good enough to convince a symphony orchestra to play your music to give a concert. This is a rather strong filter. But with electric amplification all you need to do is to convince a few friends. So probably the average quality of music dropped. But on the other hand, this also allowed the rapid evolution of music in the second half of the last century. Similar I would expect that the average quality of writing is brought down by reddit, but simultaneously this will likely fuel a much faster evolution. And for programming languages, it is again the same. If you need to convince a mainframe operator to run your program, then it should better be written well.

[1] http://www.locusmag.com/Perspectives/2010/01/cory-doctorow-c...

>He decries one aspect of the evolution of language, the aspect which just hides meaning.

But that begs the question of whether meanings are in fact hidden, or simply changed -- at least as far as language as a whole is concerned[1]. There are of course individual cases where people are, as you point out, incentivized to do all sorts of weird things with language to accomplish some goal. Thus was rhetoric born.

1. Many insults, for example, shed their original sense and persist only as generic attacks. Does that mean that the original meanings are hidden? Or are they simply no longer relevant? Like 'Scumbag': http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/28253/origin-of-s.... (Note the several possible etymologies, none of which really bears on its use today anyway.)

>And it seems to me, that objectively there is a incentive for many stakeholders to disguise the inherent meaning of their message, either to appear more disruptive in whichever space they move, or to straight out lie by misunderstanding.

Well said. "To appear more disruptive" is particularly apropos on HN, where 'disruptive' is so perfunctory an adjective as to have lost all meaning (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glittering_generality).

Edit: To Doctorow's point, I doubt that's quite true. In the West at least, solo pieces (particularly piano), quartets and quintets of various kinds (particularly brass and string), and so on have been popular for ages.

I sometimes try to talk with my mother about truth, reality, correct beliefs and so on. Her problem is, she is relativist. To her, the idea that there's only one reality, and that contradictory beliefs are incompatible is not only false, but repugnant.

One of the major causes happens to be vocabulary. In French, the closest synonymous for belief, "croyance", carries a heavy religious connotation. We have other words, such as "knowledge", "opinion"… but they have other problems. We just don't have a short colloquial word to convey the idea of a probability distribution, and no more.

"No problem, I'll just define the word for her." But I'm not allowed to. I'm supposed to be accessible, which means no long sentences, and no jargon. My trying to be precise comes of as pedantic, pretentious, and needlessly complicated.

And so we're stuck. She doesn't understand what I mean, and I can't explain it to her. Even worse, she actually believes she does understand. Because my words have meanings to her. Just not the meanings I wanted to convey.


Regarding solo pieces, quartets, and quintets, you should note that guitar has frets. Playing in tune is much easier compared to say, the cello. While becoming a good guitarist requires just as much effort than becoming a good cellist, merely playing something that sounds cool requires much, much less effort.

You might enjoy this article by Geoff Pullum on why P&EL is misguided https://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2013/04/04/eliminat...

Kind of an ahistorical, huh?

Orwell wrote and lived in the context of rising totalitarianism. As in 1984, he saw totalitarianism as a new system that could arise under either capitalism or socialism.

Clearly, he's for the evolution of language's expressiveness but against the evolution of bureaucratic "duck-speak" (to use one of his later phrases).

[Source: Orwell's essay collection, My Country Right or Left]

> What is deterioration, pray tell? What makes a language worse?

In this essay it seems to be the a poor signal to noise ratio. Metaphors that have lost the power to move and habits of speech that go against concise expression.

> 'Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.'

One of my favorite essays. I re-read this every six months as a reminder to be as clear and precise as possible in my communication.

Schopenhauer said it 200 years before Orwell did, a fact I discovered only this week.

I recommend Schopenhauer's essay if you liked this one. Read essays 1-3 http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/

  > one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some
    worn-out and useless phrase ... into the dustbin,
    where it belongs.
Such a fitting sentence on which to end the essay, since "dustbin" is no longer part of the modern English lexicon, as far as I know.

Google N-Gram analysis suggests otherwise, with dustbin more common in books in 2000 than the 1940s/1950s:


However, it has be losing in relative rank to 'trash can'. I believe dustbin is far more common in British English than North American English.

Many thanks to you and the other replies for increasing my linguistic cultural awareness!

I should say "dustbin" is second only to "bin" in the UK. "Dustbin" perhaps favoured slightly by the older generations. Interestingly the reason we call it a dustbin is because people were used to being thrifty with their food, especially during the war and post-war years, and almost the only sort of refuse put out for collection was 100% inert dust and the odd animal bone ... people burnt or ate everything else. That all changed with the introduction of American style self service "supermarkets" in the 50s and 60s. Having previously been accustomed to shopping in small stores where produce was handed to them personally by an employee consumers demanded increased and more elaborate packaging to make up for the fact that goods may have been handled by other shoppers. More packaging and more unconsumed food made its way into our dustbins and they lost their dusty nature and became a deal more smelly.

Before plastic ruled the roost everything would go on the fire, the fire being a permanent fixture in the front room. If it was summer you would still have a fire in the evening.

The coal scuttle was a de-facto bin, anything that accumulated in there during the day went on the fire. This would also include the newspaper, which would be scrunched up to make a bed for the fire to be lit with.

It was perfectly reasonable to put things like vegetable peelings on the fire too. They might sizzle but they would still be gone.

Milk came in glass bottles that were washed out and collected by the milk man, very few other bottles were used, certainly no sugar drinks in aluminium cans. Tea ruled in England until relatively recently.

There was also the compost heap. So organic matter would go on there, not out of save the world principle, it was just the done thing. You would obviously eat everything you were given so it wasn't as if there were table scraps in the bin.

I don't believe consumers demanded more and more elaborate packaging. Since forever people have complained about excess packaging. It is actually all about cost. Take for example the recycled 'deposit paid' bottles of yesteryear. The glass was quite thick and they weighed quite a bit. Today glass is different, very thin, lightweight and hence cheaper to distribute. I would argue that packaging has became less elaborate - quality bottles of yesteryear have gone, as have proper biscuit tins to take two examples.

So, the dustbin, it wasn't random dust, it was whatever was left over from the fireplace, mostly ash from coal. Britain was an island of coal in a sea of fish in previous times.

Definitely part of British English, and also an allusion to the phrase "dustbin of history".

I'm certainly familiar with the phrase. In American English it would be considered a collocation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collocation) because "trash can" et simil have replaced it... and Orwell's essay suggests that collocations detract from clarity. But I've clearly exposed my ignorance about this particular Britishism.

I think it's fairly common in British English.

"dustbin" isn't a catchphrase.

It is the posh word for the American "trash can", still in active use.

Politics and the English Language [with annotations from a rational thinker] http://pastebin.com/mSzbX5Hd

I try to read this once a year to jolt myself out of my typical writing. Another useful tip is to have "The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White nearby.

This has always been one of my favorite essays.

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