“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell, “and 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 spurting out ink.”
I confess I myself sometimes feel like that cuttlefish spurting out ink, but that’s perhaps beside the point. The quoted line is from a timeless essay George Orwell wrote in 1946 called “Politics and the English Language,” which essay, like George Orwell himself, influenced many writers, at least one of whom later went out of her way to deny any influence.
In his essay, George Orwell rather convincingly makes the surprising argument that there’s a direct and demonstrable link between politics and poor writing, between governments and the degeneration of language.
Because, says George Orwell, and I agree, all issues are at root political issues, and “politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. 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.”
His essay is a fascinating read — I can assure you not boring even to those uninterested in politics — and what one finds perhaps most striking about it is that it touches upon the profound connection that exists between thought and language, between the proper use of words and clarity in thinking.
Pretentious diction, dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, these are the cardinal sins he catalogs and condemns — “an accumulation of stale phrases chokes like tea leaves blocking a sink” — whereas, on the other hand, the scrupulous writer, in every sentence she or he writes, will ask four basic questions:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And then probably two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Generally I’m wary of the overly proscriptive, and this essay does have a little of that stench about it. Yet it’s so thoughtful and so well-written that it’s faults are overshadowed.