I recently reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” and I had one of those experiences where rereading a piece after several years resulted in new insights. Many of which seem obvious in hindsight. The first time I read Orwell’s essay I was either in college or just graduated. I remember being obsessed with his list of questions every “scrupulous writer” will ask himself:
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 he will probably ask himself two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
On the whole, I still endorse these questions. In fact, I often write variations of them in the margins of my students’ papers. I also still enjoy his critique of the five writing samples he collects from various publications.
However, after reading it again, I’m simultaneously more enthusiastic about his thesis but less enthusiastic about how he illustrates his point.
On a pop-culture level, Orwell is right. The relationship between thought and language is relatively unexamined. We are quick to repeat words and phrases without any keen sense of what they mean or what we mean by them.
To pick an easy example: does anyone know what “Make America great again!” really means? No. But by golly it is a wonderful empty bucket for anyone to dump their ideas of “Make,” “great,” and “again” into.
The underlying assumption, which Orwell leaves largely unaddressed, is the idea that words are not inherently attached to their historical meanings. Speaker’s meaning—as Owen Barfield argues—is everything. Nevertheless, the fluid relationship between meaning and language allows for the kind of manipulation of language that results in the political chaos Orwell describes.
The political sphere in particular, with its sloganeering and repetitive rhetoric, functions as a linguistic siphon. Language originally used to communicate complex philosophical concepts is forced into the small tube of the immediate political context, and then disseminated to a wider audience that has no awareness of the etymological significance. The result is a handy slogan with viral capabilities.
Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to politics. But as a general thesis of how language and thought affect each other, you could do worse than Orwell’s assessment.
My less-than-enthusiastic response occurs when Orwell begins to discuss the mind numbing effects of political speeches. He uses the image of a speaker who utters words of dead imitation:
The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
I don’t deny the veracity of the experience Orwell describes, but I do take issue with two things:
First, political rhetoric and the ancient prayers of the Christian Church, recited by congregants on a weekly basis, are hardly comparable. The one is the product of the needs of an immediate context—e.g., election seasons. The other is part of a tradition that spans two centuries of painstaking reflection, prayer, and analysis from people in different time periods from all over the world.
Second, repetition does not necessarily imply mindlessness, nor does it inhibit sincere thought. My own experience has been the opposite. Memorizing poetry, for example, has made me more attune to the rhythms of language, the nuance of vocabulary and syntax, and has revitalized otherwise mundane experiences. This would not have happened had I not taken the time to learn through repetition.
The same could be said for the purpose and function of the prayers in the church. Congregants repeat the Nicene Creed every week not for the purpose of social conformity, but with the assurance that what they’ve said is true and the truth will continue to reveal himself to them as they meditate on the words of the creed.
As Orwell himself argues, language affects thought and thought affects language. If this is the case, then we would do well to repeat, daily and often, passages where language and thought are in harmony with each other. Free thought, as Orwell seems to conceive of it, is not free from repetition. Sometimes our freedom occurs only when we’ve freely subjected ourselves to the imitation of higher standards. Such ideals won’t be found in our political sloganeering, and so we should avoid such habits in our speaking and writing like the plague. But I’ve never known an artist who doesn’t owe a great debt to a previous artist—someone they first imitated when they began to develop their craft.
So too with writing. Find the good stuff, and then, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”