You may find creative ways to break these rules without thereby being obscure or justifying mass murder.
But Orwell does preface his guidelines with some very sound advice: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.
What Orwell’s essay championed was nothing more or less than writing committed to plain sense, a process he described as “picking words for their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer.” Unfortunately, those who should know better, and more important, whose responsibility it is to pass along a healthy respect for language are often the same people who take a special delight in giving “Politics and the English Language” the scholarly raspberries.
That Orwell has a hard time passing muster among the composition theory crowd is now a matter of record, but I had a preview of the hammering-to-come during the late 1970’s, when my college’s director of freshman writing treated the English department to an impromptu stump speech about just how pernicious, and badly written, Orwell’s essays were.
If it is true, as Eugene Genovese once observed, that all political movements include idealists, careerists, and thugs, it is equally true that it is the “thugs”—that is, the propagandists, professional obscurantists, and spin-doctors—who do most of the writing.
Looking back at Orwell’s essay from the vantage point of a half century, one quickly realizes how it is possible to be simultaneously prescient and short-sighted, for Orwell could feel the intimations that would lead to our current conviction that “everything is political” without being able to fully imagine the pretentiousness and tin-eared jargon that such reductiveness would unleash.These are the rules Orwell suggests: (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.Those who care about clarity of thought and responsible use of rhetoric would do well to consult them often, and to read, or re-read, Orwell’s essay.“I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you,” Apeneck Sweeney tells his girlfriend Doris as he tries to explain how it is that “death is life and life is death.” Though he dwells near the bottom of the cultural food chain, T. Eliot’s protagonist nonetheless identifies a problem that has high-brow implications, and the 20th-century jitters, written all over it.I can’t remember the bill of particulars—probably because my shock and her certainty were on a collision course—but I do recall pointing out that if people couldn’t recognize the intrinsic greatness of an essay like “Politics and the English Language,” they wouldn’t know a first-rate piece of writing if it bit them on the ass.In those benighted days, when talk about literary values wouldn’t get you hooted out of the room, knowing why a work mattered And while I am not particularly proud of my intemperate outburst, I do take some small measure of satisfaction in remembering that my colleagues nodded in agreement, and that the Orwell-knocker in our midst was soon sacked. For example, I am not entirely sure how my colleagues would respond to a similar attack on “Politics and the English Language” were it to be delivered by somebody at composition theory’s cutting edge.He then went on to finish the sentence by making it clear just how debased most political writing had become: “and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” Orwell had recently completed when he wrote these words.He had had a bellyful of the worst that willful obfuscation could offer and set about cataloguing the sins of dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, and pretentious diction.Long before efforts to destabilize language became a cottage industry and then a staple of academic politics, Orwell worried about the social implications of wretched speech.“All issues are political issues,” he declared with the same no-nonsense clarity that characterized nearly every paragraph, every sentence, indeed, every word he wrote.