Orwell – Why say many words when few can do the trick?

There is something deeply dishonest when a speaker tells long speeches of nothing as to fill time and space. Or so George Orwell thought so. We can wonder as to why language became so sophisticated, especially in politics and academia, as to make entire topics out of reach for the common people.

George Orwell, born Eric Arthur Blair, grew up in India at a time it was ruled by the United Kingdom. From a modest background, he always tried to keep alive his dream to become a writer, which explains his fascination for language. Early on, he was an officer at the Indian Imperial service and the more he experienced the reality of colonisation, the more ashamed he grew of the imperialist rule of the British Crown. His experience would later help form his political ideas, as Orwell grew to be left-leaning, more so towards anarchism and socialism, and was absolutely opposed to every form of political totalitarianism.

Not only he was an adamant socialist, with many reservations towards the rise of communism, he was repulsed by the bourgeois mode de vie, and as the passionate critic and writer he was, returning to the Old Continent only meant for him to avoid the distractions of luxury and help himself to a life of hard work and labour, dismissing the small pleasures he could obtain.

In 1946, Orwell published his essay on the impact of the evolution of language, more precisely how political discourse became more and more snobbish, and by extension how language was dumbed down to the point of becoming an extremely unreliable weapon.

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then 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. »

George Orwell, « Politics and the English Language », p.1.

Language has been stuck in a downward spiral as it has lost its purity and directness during a time of unrest and instability. The more it became sophisticated, the less accessible it appeared to be. Any attempt to make language, discourse, speech, sound more intelligent has a negative effect on the idea conveyed. There is no message, if the message is hidden behind some unexplainable gibberish. Drowning an idea with words leaves too much space to misinterpretation. In his essay, Orwell argued that language actually needs to move forward and avoid getting stuck in past mannerism, whether it is “dying metaphors” (nothing fresher than a new-born phrase) or boring fillers which are considerate elaborate: in regards of/the fact that/brought to a satisfactory conclusion… (p.6) Concise language makes for clarity and visibility. Reading should be easy, so should be listening to a speech. What Orwell noticed last century still resonates truly when it comes to how political speeches are constructed, and how academia teaches directionless students. The wound is way too deep, as to maintain a certain distance between different social status, and many academics are victims of this long-standing system. It is a hard task to purify language, and I do suffer from embellishment, from snobbism and unclarity when it comes to my writing, because I have been hypocritically taught to do so. A thin line has been drawn over time between what could be considered a writing style and nonsensical, mechanical, academical writing. Same goes for political language and abuse.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.”

George Orwell, « Politics and the English Language », p.8.

Big words make for scary thoughts and avoidable shortcuts. Even today it is very common to notice that this word is devoid of all meaning. Fascism is frequently mistaken for Nazism. It has become the fear-mongering political tool that serves the purpose of preserving the political status quo (snobbism is inevitable). It has evolved into resenting every nationalistic thought (whether rightfully or not) to the level where democracy has become an absolute farce. We can kid ourselves into believing in the political spectrum, whereas the latter in our modern republics became a televised reality show where all elected members point fingers at each other hoping to not repeat the mistakes of the past: letting the big word take control again. Language, when used this way, limits politics to a cycle of absurdities.

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 squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”

George Orwell, « Politics and the English Language », p.15.

Politics evolved into a game devoid of any meaning, broken into cycles of similar people coming and going using and re-using the speeches of their predecessor, with the speeches becoming more and more meaningless with each reiteration. The same metaphors, the same long-standing issues, the same opposition and never any solution. It became apparent as to why, nowadays, a new surge of extremism and populism took place. It is quite easy to make fun of the prosaic discourse of Donald Trump, or the misery put into words of Jair Bolsonaro, but their success is not only down to their obvious populist politics (which could be argued that they are not remotely interested in these politics, but only the power that comes with it). However, their language is accessible, they “say it as it is” with no embellishment, no specific jargon and just like that they can reach individuals who could not be bothered by politics at all. The ultimate pro of using direct language, whether used with good will or not, is that they made themselves accessible to large parts of the population, widening the gap between “intellectuals”, “working for the man” politicians and “closer to the people”, “communicating clearly” politicians. Despite all the social and economical issues, society has not become worse overnight as to tend more and more towards the far ends of the political spectrum. It has grown tired of promises full of naught and everlasting cycles of waffling. There is a clear need to find a middle ground between demagogy and intellectual chauvinism as to bring politics closer to the people who should be the orchestrators of our society, and as Orwell noticed it, the next revolution must be a revolution of language.

Erdem Ozgunay.

Sources

https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell

ORWELL, George, « Politics and the English Language », Penguin Classics, 2013.

Cover photo: BBC.

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