George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” begins by refuting common presumptions that hold that the decline of the English language is a reflection of the state of society and politics, that this degeneration is inevitable, and that it’s hopeless to resist it. This disempowering idea, he says, derives from an understanding of language as a “natural growth” rather than an “instrument which we shape for our own purposes” (251). As an instrument, language can be manipulated for various purposes. As Orwell will show, language can also manipulate those who use it unconsciously.
He presents a list of corrupting habits that cause writers to think poorly and thus write poorly. The list includes unoriginal or mixed metaphors, pretentious diction, and abstract or meaningless language. When a person becomes lazy they allow their language to think for them. In this way, political writers end up following a party line. By using set phrases, they pantomime ideology without thinking. Independent thinking is necessary for a healthy political life.
As corrupted language smothers independent, original thinking, it thus serves a political purpose. Orwell demonstrates the deceptive effect of various political terms, showing how elevated, complex and abstract language actively disguises ugly and violent concrete realities. In this way, abstract language becomes a means for political writers to “justify unjustifiables.” He presents a list of tools that can be used to resist dishonest language.
Orwell sees the use of honest language as political act in itself, a form of resistance against insidious and widespread manipulations of rhetorical structures. He says that in an atmosphere of “terrible politics” (such as the period in which he’s writing), corrupted language is almost inevitable. But this doesn’t make the resistance against it futile. He returns to the claim that he opens with: that language is a tool, and not a natural evolutionary growth. It’s thus possible to manipulate that tool. It does however, take diligent, conscious effort on the part of the political writer or speaker. Orwell thinks that mindless and actively deceptive language can be identified and resisted through ridicule, and, most of all, through a diligent commitment to honest representation.