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Orwell's 5 greatest essays: No. 1, 'Politics and the English Language'

November 08, 2013|By Michael Hiltzik
  • Scene of the crime? The U.S. Senate in session.
Scene of the crime? The U.S. Senate in session. (U.S. Senate )

For anyone interested in the politics of left and right -- and in political journalism as it is practiced at the highest level -- George Orwell's works are indispensable. This week, in the year marking the 110th anniversary of his birth, we present a personal list of his five greatest essays. 

The winner and still champ, Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" stands as the finest deconstruction of slovenly writing since Mark Twain's "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses."

Orwell's essay, published in 1946 in Cyril Connolly's literary review Horizon, is not as sarcastic or funny as Twain's, but unlike Twain, Orwell makes the connection between degraded language and political deceit (at both ends of the political spectrum).

"The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable,' he writes, then points a finger at words like democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic and justice.

"Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.... Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality."

Orwell continues: "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible....Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." In our time, too.

He observes: "Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." The remedy is to insist on simple English.

"If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy ... and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself."  

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email.

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