George Orwell and the English Language

George Orwell

In 1946 George Orwell (Eric Blair) wrote a short essay on how despots use language to obstruct their people’s and others understanding of the crimes their regimes were committing.

Today language still can be manipulated albeit often by those with purer motives, terms such as “ethnic cleansing,” “surgical strike,” “collateral damage,” and “reform” airbrush the grim reality of a situation or just plain mislead.

How many times have we hears politicians talk about “reforms” for instance when pushing for a piece of legislation that is not progressive in any way, actually reversing more repressive or conservative legislation?  And how often do we challenge the misuse of such language?

But putting aside the political commentary that Orwell expanded upon with near genius in 1984, lets take a look at the essay from a copywriting perspective.

Orwell was as much an artist in letters as he was in demystifying and exposing the crude propaganda of odious regimes.  His essay Politics and The English Language stands the test of time as a guide to better expression in words.

Orwell’s Advice for copywriters

It is a true art for a writer to express themselves so simply but so effectively, and with such style, as George Orwell did.  Writers such as Graham Greene and Franz Kafka (only read in translation) also come to mind.

So what advice did Orwell give?

These are his six key rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.  This is something Churchill agreed on, using Anglo Saxon words whenever possible
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

That’ it, simple enough but takes years of practice and constant vigilance to make sure flowery, woolly or confusing English does not re-emerge.

There are some more useful pointers for writing with speed and flow here.

A piece on Christopher Hitchens will I am sure follow.