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Writers on Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

If you’ve ever thought of yourself as a writer, chances are that you have opinions about George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” First published in 1946, it has since become required reading for intro-level writing classes, as well as an obligatory citation when discussing politics and rhetoric. From glowing exaltations to severe critiques, I was curious what working writers had to say about the famed essay. I mined NYPL’s Articles & Databases to find out.

If you’re unfamiliar with “Politics and the English Language,” the Library has you covered! You can read it in NYPL’s Articles & Databases or in the Orwell collection All Art Is Propaganda compiled by George Packer.

Portrait photo of George Orwell
George Orwell via Wikimedia Commons

From “Left Field”
Ed Smith | New Statesman | 2013
We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. […] Using plain and clear language is not a moral virtue, as Orwell hoped. Things aren’t that simple. In fact, giving the impression of clarity and straightforwardness is often a strategic game. The way we speak and the way we write are both forms of dress. We can, linguistically, dress ourselves up any way we like. We can affect plainness and directness just as much as we can affect sophistication and complexity. We can try to mislead or to impress, in either mode. Or we can use either register honestly.

From “Review: Author, Author”
Steven Poole | The Guardian | 2013
Orwell’s assault on political euphemism, then, is righteous but limited. His more general attacks in “Politics” on what he perceives to be bad style are often outright ridiculous, parading a comically arbitrary collection of intolerances. […]If you ever feel tempted to say “status quo” or “cul de sac,” for instance, Orwell will sneer at you for “pretentious diction.” Why pretentious? Because these phrases are of “foreign” origin. […] Yet if we strip the language down to what there is a “real need” for, whither poetry? Allow only the words that Orwell thinks necessary, and the resulting stunted lexicon is itself a kind of functionalist, impoverished Newspeak.

From “Why We Need to Call a Pig a Pig (With or Without Lipstick)”
Jennie Yabroff | Newsweek | 2008
[Orwell] was less interested in what motivates people to act without integrity than in the words they use to camouflage and perpetuate their dishonesty: for Orwell, bad language and bad politics were one and the same. Yet for all his penury and despair, his faith in the power of clear, strong language can only be read as optimistic. Today, the writer’s name is invoked to describe anything involving surveillance, paranoia, or even books about animals. Orwell’s ideas have been bastardized and simplified over time […] Rather than describing surveillance devices, or pig farms, a more accurate application of the adjective would mean something that aspires to the lucidity and integrity of Orwell’s writing. In that case, it would be the highest praise.

From “Musing About Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’—50 Years Later”
Sanford Pinsker | Virginia Quarterly Review | 1997
[T]hose 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. 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.


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