First published in 1946, George Orwell’s commentary on political language remains culturally salient. Preoccupied with the ‘decay’ of his mother tongue and the political implications inherent to such a decline, Orwell defines the source of such linguistic decadence as a ‘reduced state of consciousness’ in which the metaphor is dead, and pretentiousness prevails. While Orwell’s list of linguistic ‘swindles and perversions’ – including ‘dying metaphors,’ ‘meaningless words’ and ‘pretentious diction’ – continues to characterise much of contemporary political discourse, it should be questioned by a subtle alteration in the analysis of language used within the public and political spheres.
Contemplating the death of the metaphor requires the acknowledgement of language and semantic fields as markers of complex value systems. Orwell recognises that much political writing exists as iterations of significant works based on an ‘orthodox’ and ‘imitative style’, with such regurgitation intent on blurring perceptions that ‘a mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.’ Such a claim is vital and acknowledges the political potency of euphemism, yet it fails to recognise the centrality of such repetition in building linguistic fortifications for the defence of political ideologies. The metaphor may be dead; yet it retains a spectral quality in the way that its invocation can come to instantly represent, and often reinforce, a certain political view. Thus, providing symbolism for unique political identities in a political sphere which much like Orwell’s is ‘a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia’. As Simone Weil suggests ‘when empty words are given capital letters’ they have the ability to become ‘all swollen with blood and tears’.
Take Orwell’s examples of fascist, democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic and justice. All have multiple disparate and irreconcilable meanings; however, in the present they do not observe the futility as political terms that the natural trajectory of Orwell’s argument dictates. The above concepts can be placed into categories which are symbolic of broad political ideologies, acting as dog whistles in the signification of certain values. Developing in the later twentieth century and being ideologically streamlined throughout the twenty-first century, universal values such as that of ‘freedom’ and ‘patriotism’ have now become innately linked to conservative ideologies in the western psyche and are often invoked in arguments for issues which are diametrically opposed to the purest meaning of the term. Churchwell explores this tendency in depth in her work on the conceptual histories of the terms ‘America First’ and ‘The American Dream’ from c.1900-1945. Exploring the relationship between language and the formation of elaborate coding systems in which certain political terminology becomes so laden with value that ‘slogans’ are not simply just ‘mere words’ when they can erect ‘political realities.’
With sporadic reference to the actual implications of such language use for European politics in the age of totalitarianism, Orwell’s essay reads as a lamentation on linguistic decline. While offering reflections on how advantageous obscuring meaning and definition can be for political actors – recognising that ‘present political chaos is connected with the decay of language’ – the majority of Orwell’s focus lies not on the saliency of language in the political sphere, including forming opinion and outcome, but instead on how politics dictates shift in language use. While this in itself is not an inconsequential phenomenon, the richness of the context in which Orwell was writing offers abundant cases to explore the implications of what the death and manipulation of language may mean for political reality, not just observing the potential for political decline but actively interrogating the associated role of language within it. The observation that ‘thought corrupts language’ has a significant oversight if the perspective that thought is based on language is not recognised as fundamental, rather than simply another possibility of the relationship between the two factors.
The irony of Orwell’s desire to use the ‘fewest and shortest words’ and offer rules for language usage, is not lost on those who are familiar with his oeuvre, even if such claims are made with the regeneration of the English language in mind. Individuals with an affliction for literature will recognise Orwell’s desire for a conscious evocation of language, a recognition of the power of storytelling for human sustenance and the natural significance this places on language. While simplicity and consciousness are the remedies prescribed by Orwell, present obsessions with linguistic consciousness are not symbolic of Orwell’s desire for a reinvigorated English language, instead they are symbolic of the deception Orwell desired to avoid. Language is chosen carefully to ensure the confirmation of certain political stories and predetermined binaries, with high degrees of social risk for those who stray from linguistic conformity.
Thus, we should be conscious of our metaphors not for what they confirm but for what they question. Orwell’s desire for linguistic simplicity must be denied in a context in which all undemanding political terms come dripping with value.
Written by Georgia Smith
Churchwell, Sarah. 2019. Behold America. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Orwell, George. 2000. George Orwell: Essays. London: Penguin Classics.
Weil, Simone. 2005. Selected. Simone Weil: An Anthology: Penguin Classics.