Sullivan on Orwell on Language

June 5, 2021 • 11:00 am

George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is one of my favorite essays of all time (you could do worse, though, than read all his collected essays, many of them masterpieces). It not only teaches one how to write clearly, but shows how political writers deliberately use obfuscation and euphemism to blur language for ideological ends, hiding political brutality and base motives. You can read it here, and should, like me, do so at least once a year. It will improve your prose. There’s a reason why Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called Why Orwell Matters in 2003.

Andrew Sullivan is also a fan of that essay, as all writers should be, and highlights it in one section of his weekly column (click on screenshot below). But he gives it a modern twist, showing how the kind of obscurantist writing decried by Orwell is still with us—pervasive in the works of the Woke.

Reviving Orwell’s thoughts in light of modern politics was a great idea. He’d have a few harsh words to say about the woke!

First, though, let’s look at the five principles of good writing Orwell lists at the end of his essay:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Then Sullivan gives several abstracts of Woke writing that violate many of these guidelines. I won’t reproduce his critique at length (it’s pretty funny in parts), nor mention the other people who violate these principles (e.g., the group Sullivan calls the “alphabet people” obsessed with gender nouns).

Here’s one example of bad modern writing discussed by Sullivan:

I was just reading about the panic that occurred in the American Medical Association, when their journal’s deputy editor argued on a podcast that socio-economic factors were more significant in poor outcomes for non-whites than “structural racism.” As you might imagine, any kind of questioning of this orthodoxy required the defenestration of the deputy editor and the resignation of the editor-in-chief. The episode was withdrawn from public viewing, and the top editor replaced it with a Maoist apology/confession before he accepted his own fate.

But I was most struck by the statement put out in response by a group called “The Institute for Antiracism in Medicine.” Here it is:

The podcast and associated promotional message are extremely problematic for minoritized members of our medical community. Racism was created with intention and must therefore be undone with intention. Structural racism has deeply permeated the field of medicine and must be actively dissolved through proper antiracist education and purposeful equitable policy creation. The delivery of messages suggesting that racism is non-existent and therefore non-problematic within the medical field is harmful to both our underrepresented minoritized physicians and the marginalized communities served in this country.

Consider the language for a moment. I don’t want to single out this group — they are merely representative of countless others, all engaged in the recitation of certain doctrines, and I just want an example. But I do want to say that this paragraph is effectively dead, drained of almost any meaning, nailed to the perch of pious pabulum. It is prose, in Orwell’s words, that “consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

It is chock-full of long, compounded nouns and adjectives, riddled with the passive voice, lurching and leaning, like a passenger walking the aisle on a moving train, on pre-packaged phrases to keep itself going.

Notice the unnecessary longevity: a tweet becomes an “associated promotional message.” Notice the deadness of the neologisms: “minoritized”, “marginalized”, “non-problematic”. As Orwell noted: “the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalizeimpermissibleextramaritalnon-fragmentatory and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning.” Go back and see if you can put the words “minoritized” or “non-problematic” into everyday English.

His second target is Ibram X. Kendi, who also comes in for it in Sullivan’s “Dissents of the Week” section for proposing a Department of Racism that could vet and reject any U.S. law on the grounds that it creates inequity. But you can read that for yourself. Here’s his critique of Kendi’s language:

I caught a glimpse of Ibram X. Kendi’s recent appearance at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the annual woke, oxygen-deprived hajj for the left-media elites. He was asked to define racism — something you’d think he’d have thought a bit about. This was his response: “Racism is a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.” He does this a lot. He repeats Yoda-stye formulae: “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy … If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” These maxims pepper his tomes like deep thoughts in a self-help book. When he proposes specific action to counter racism, for example, he suggests: “Deploy antiracist power to compel or drive from power the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to institute the antiracist policy.” “Always vote for the leftist” is a bit blunter.

Orwell had Kendi’s number: “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 favourable to political conformity.” And that conformity is proven by the gawking, moneyed, largely white, Atlantic subscribers hanging on every one of this lightweight’s meaningless words — as if they really were in church.

You can tell from Sullivan’s snide remarks about the Aspen Ideas Festival—which I once attended—and about Atlantic subscribers that he’s pretty ticked off, and in good form.

So what do we do about this abuse of the English language? Sullivan recommends, correctly, that we call it out and ask for clarification:

And that is the only recourse an average citizen has when buried by this avalanche of abstraction: ask the language-launderers what they are really talking about. When some doofus apologizes for the “terrible pain” they have caused to the whatever community, ask them to give a specific example of that “pain.” When someone says “structural racism,” ask: what actual “structures” are you referring to? How do they actually work? Give concrete examples.

When someone calls American society “white supremacy”, ask them how you could show that America is not a form of “white supremacy”. When someone uses the word “Latinx”, ask them which country does that refer to. When someone says something is “problematic”, ask them to whom? When you’re told you’re meeting with members of the BIPOC or AANHPI communities, ask them first to translate and then why this is in any way relevant, and why every single member of those communities are expected to have the same opinion. And when you’re told that today is IDAHOBIT Day, ask them if you can speak to Frodo.

The term “structural racism” is my personal bugaboo, as it’s become a synonym for just “racism”, with the “structural” tacked on to add gravitas and a supposed intensity of malfeasance. But “structural” racism is racism built into some institution or structure, like laws or rules, not simple acts of bigotry. As for “pain,” well, I accept very few of these claims as accurate. “Pain” has become another word for “offense” or even “manufactured offense.”

But I will stop here lest I begin ranting, for Sullivan’s rant is enough. Read it.

45 thoughts on “Sullivan on Orwell on Language

  1. I figure Orwell was trying to say it is easy to sound sophisticated but difficult to make a point. In this way, anyone – ANYONE – of any background, education, etc. – i.e. on Tw1773r – can write like a member of the Elect, sound stunning, but make no point whatsoever.

  2. My institution’s refusal to accept мы и наши as my chosen personal pronouns was a glaring example of institutional anti-Cyrillicness. This is not mere Latin fragility, and it is much worse than problematic. It is a microaggression against our minoritized Russianx community, and undoubtedly caused it grievous pain. We demand steps to root out this institutional Latin alphabet supremacism, a fulsome apology, resignation of everyone concerned, and a bottle of good водка.

  3. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    Which is impossible, and probably a joke at linguist conferences, as language is riddled with metaphors. They are everywhere, even though many are, as Steven Pinker quipped, often dead as a doornail, especially the most common ones. In fact, both you and Sullivan violated that rule already, and I did, too.

    Take, “It not only teaches one how to write clearly, but shows how political writers deliberately use obfuscation and euphemism to blur language for ideological ends, hiding political brutality and base motives” — the conceptual metaphors in this part are borrowed from optics and are also common.

    Sullivan surely didn’t mean someone was literally thrown out of a window when he wrote “questioning of this orthodoxy required the defenestration of the deputy editor” and it’s again an established imagery. There are many more examples throughout the text, some perhaps arguable.

    Of course, I see what Orwell meant. It’s more about clichés that are not yet dead enough and stand out like sore thumb, making the prose collapse like a house of cards.

    1. Ummm. . . I interpret Orwell’s dictum here as saying “try to AVOID using shopworn metaphors and phrases, especially if they’re not appropriate.” And that is good advice. Of course we can’t completely avoid them, but one can also make up new ones. Lewontin did that in his book, using as an example of heterosis someone “trotting out the tired old Bucephalus of sickle-cell anemia.” As far as I know, that was original with him, and I thought it refreshing.

    2. It is of course the mark of a good writer, then, to make the call if a word is both expressive and parsimonious, or merely expressive.

      … and I find the claim that “blur”, “clearly”, etc. being “borrowed from optics” is breaking Orwell’s rule a bit pedantic… if they are in fact used as metaphors here.

    3. Orwell deals with your objections in his essay.

      A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness.

      “clearly” and “blur” fall into the iron fist category. They are part of the language now.

      “defenestration”, however, is a clear breach of rule v and possibly of rule i too.

      1. As someone once said, in reference to “defenestration”: “…then why not use ‘depontification’ for ’throwing (or jumping) off a bridge’”?

  4. ‘The term “structural racism” is my personal bugaboo . . . .’

    Mine at the moment is “lived experience.” As opposed to “unlived”? Who has any experience which is not “lived”? Or am I somehow missing something?

    1. I think “lived experience” is fine as, I assume, it is intended to be contrasted with vicarious experience. It stresses the idea that the experiencer’s opinion matters more than anyone else’s on a subject in question. I’m not saying I buy that in all cases as it places the subjective over the objective in an absolute way. Driver: “I felt like I was only going 50 miles per hour.” Officer: “No, I used my radar gun and you were doing 80.”

      1. I think the issue is that “experience” by itself has almost always been used to connote “lived experience.” Hence phrases like “In my experience,” etc. If someone is talking about something they haven’t experienced they usually say something like “I’ve heard that…” and so on.

        1. I disagree. Your phrase, “in my experience”, shows that something else is needed to denote whose experience is meant. “Lived” is a way of indicating that the person with the experience, and the opinion of that experience, are one and the same.

      2. Appreciating the humor of the driver’s defence, I think the officer could not deny the man’s notion about the speed. So, wouldn’t he have been still more convincing if, instead of “No”, he had replied: “Yes but…” ?

  5. He [Orwell]’d have a few harsh words to say about the woke!

    Not merely about the woke, I’m certain. “Election integrity,” for example, strikes me as terminology befitting Newspeak for the voter suppression spurred by the große Lüge regarding the 2020 US presidential election.

    Let us never forget that Orwell was a man of the Left. After all, he fought with the PUOM militia on the Loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War (as recounted in his memoir Homage to Catalonia). And as he said of that experience in his essay “Why I Write”:

    The Spanish war and other events in 1936–37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.

    1. Yes, Indeed. Can there be anything more Orwellian (including the Woke) than the delusions of the Republican Party and the Trump cult that it caters to? The Arizona fraudit (as one commentator has called it) of the Maricopa County ballots is the perfect example of the Orwellian threat to democracy. In the Orwellian world of Trump’s mind, he has claimed that the he will be re-installed as president in August. When this doesn’t happen, what will the cult do?

      1. The cult will claim that Trump IS the President, and we will be like medieval Europe when there were two men, each claiming to be the Pope, and supported by his own followers.

  6. That was very entertaining and worth thinking about!
    But I do have a view that the thing called ‘structural racism’ exists, and that the term is a convenient set of syllables that lumps together a very complex but real situation in our society. But of course like all things touched by the woke, it gets brandished so often that yes it feels more like a bit of prefabbed hen-house.

    1. Structural discrimination is illegal, at least in the UK, even when the discrimination is an indirect effect of an institutional policy or government legislation. For example: However, it nevertheless still exists and legal challenges to eliminate it are not as straightforward as they should be.

      Most regular public speakers have stock phrases that they use reflexively in the way that Orwell was criticising and I suspect that “structural racism” gets “parroted” in this way by many modern anti-racism campaigners, without great thought being paid to its literal meaning.

  7. Some minor observations on Orwell’s excellent essay:

    Why the preference for Anglo-Saxon words, as if they were more genuinely English than words with Latin roots?*

    Likewise, a decided preference for short words seems a bit gratuitous to me. Why should they be intrinsically better? The more precise and apt word should be used, and if it happens to have two more syllables than a less suitable counterpart, so be it.

    “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” I don’t much understand this injunction either. Sometimes the passive is the better choice. Orwell himself uses it in his essay: “It will be seen that I have not made…” “Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer…”

    *The vocabulary of Modern English is approximately a quarter Germanic (Old English, Scandinavian, Dutch, German) and two-thirds Italic or Romance (especially Latin, French, Spanish, Italian), with copious and increasing importations from Greek in science and technology and with considerable borrowings from more than 300 other languages. — Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.

    1. The cunning linguists at Language Log have taken Orwell’s essay to task on some of these same grounds — see, for example here and here — though they are uniform in their praise for Orwell’s writing itself.

    2. ““Never use the passive where you can use the active.” I don’t much understand this injunction either. “

      I recall Pinker put this “active/passive” false dilemma to death.

      “Sometimes the passive is the better choice. Orwell himself uses it in his essay: “It will be seen that I have not made…” “Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer…”

      “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

      -Ralph Waldo Emerson
      I do not know the source – found the quote here :

    3. The percentage of Germanic words in English is much higher if you limit the sample to the most frrequently used words. Of the hundred most used words in Englishm the percentage of Germanic elements is considerably greater than 25%.

    4. Likewise, a decided preference for short words seems a bit gratuitous to me. Why should they be intrinsically better? The more precise and apt word should be used, and if it happens to have two more syllables than a less suitable counterpart, so be it.

      Orwell said:

      ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

      “[W]here a short one will do” implies that the short one will do the same work.

      Orwell would, I think, agree with using the best word.

      (ii.) Fits in well with:
      iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

      In my experience writing, editing, and reading, these are excellent rules to follow (though not slavishly). I always tell people: Strive to be clear, complete (or forthcoming in personal communications), and concise.

      Using shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs (again, not slavishly) makes comprehension easier. The goal is communication (at least mine is), not expression. Editing out extra (stuff) from writing almost always makes it clearer.

      1. I see Orwell’s essay as partly playing the role of a vehicle instrument cluster, or a high level check, or proofreading guide for a nascent piece of writing –

        struggling to express something? Zealous overwriting?
        This essay will at least point to glaring problems, to get the ideas back on track.

        As to what is a long word or short word, I think such a question means the essay has served its purpose – to focus effort where it is needed – to ask the right questions.

        Steven Pinker ought to “reboot” this essay, similar to what he did for the Elements of Style or whatever that book was – Strunk & White?

      2. I see your point. I’d agree if Orwell had put it that way: “Never use a long word where a short one will do the same work.” But I think that “Never use a long word where a short one will do” rather means “…when a short one is good enough”, which implies that even if a long word expresses your intended meaning more precisely you should still choose the short one.

        If I’m interpreting Orwell correctly, I’d argue that the long word should be chosen, even if it conveys your meaning just a bit better.

        PS: Collins Dictionary: 12. TRANSITIVE VERB/INTRANSITIVE VERB
        If you say that something “will do” […], you mean that there is enough of it or that it is of good enough quality to meet your requirements or to satisfy you.

      3. On …excellent rules…, I like the aphorism I once read:
        “There is no rule that cannot be disregarded when emotion demands it”.

    1. The best way to get something like this ignored is not to mention it and then link to it in the comments! That piece is pure dreck, and the author has spent much of his time saying the same thing over and over about the same people.

      1. I also wonder if anyone even reads Salon anymore. It was a big deal in the early days of the internet, not anymore. And even if someone does, they’d probably be bored to find yet another anti-atheist hit-piece there. This one reads almost like a contractual obligation, a reminder to Woke readers to get their 15 minutes of hate in.

    2. Thank you for that link, Roz. It was very entertaining. I can honestly say I’ve not read such drivel in …well.. possibly years. The idiot manages to get pretty much everything he says factually wrong, out of context, or “not even wrong.” It was spectacular entertainment.

      There are a breed of people, psychologically, who get a charge out of trying to take down great men.
      This guy takes the cake, and the candles!

  8. When writing, to criticize an effort at formal logic as having little to vanishing value, would a title such as “The Emperor’s New Ontological Argument” meet Orwell’s approval?

  9. “ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.”

    How good was Shakespeare? On death:

    “If it be not now, yet it will come.

    Every word is one syllable in length and all are words that a five year old would use.
    That’s how good he was.

  10. “So what do we do about this abuse of the English language? Sullivan recommends, correctly, that we call it out and ask for clarification.”
    When someone attempts to snow me, be he a wing-nut, member of the Woke, or an apologist for religion, I use the rejoinder of Denzel Washington’s Joe Miller, the defense lawyer in the movie Philadelphia, to wit, “Explain it to me like I’m a six-year old.”

  11. I think Sullivan misconceives how language works. You shouldn’t ask what country of origin “Latinx” refers to; that just invites confusion. As Alexander Stern explains:

    Despite its pretensions, the dictionary is no more than a pedantic and overexacting thesaurus. It doesn’t offer meaning, only other words.

    The world contains clusters of highly related objects and events. We use words to point to them, because as Mark Sturtevant points out in comment 6, a term often “is a convenient set of syllables that lumps together a very complex but real situation.”

    Sullivan does have a much better suggestion though:

    ask them how you could show that America is not a form of “white supremacy”.

    Show, yes. Define – usually best postponed until after many many showings.

    1. “It doesn’t offer meaning, only other words.”

      It does reduce the meaning of a great many words to the meaning of a few. That is not pretension. All the truths of mathematics have that form.

      Mr. Stern, in accusing others of pretension, is producing one himself.

  12. Once upon a time, I was a teacher of that horrid class called English 101: Freshman Composition. On the first day of class, I passed out copies of Politics And The English Language and told my students, “Read this. Memorize it, and take it to heart, because this essay is the standard by which your work will be judged for the next four months.”

  13. The 6 rules of writing that Orwell lays down in this essay are universally applicable. I agree about his essays. People always talk about Animal Farm and 1984, but before all that, Orwell was a great essayist. I would argue one of the best essayists. Aside from this significant essay he wrote, I thought “Such, Such Were The Joys”, “The Spike”, “Why I Write” and “Shooting an Elephant” are solid Orwell essays, which should exist more in the conversations surrounding Orwell’s works.

      1. Everyman’s Library has a volume titled George Orwell: Essays ISBN 978-0-375-41503-6. Despite being just under 1400 pages, it’s a handy size, and it contains about 240 of his shorter works, including everything you’re looking for. All the pieces are arranged chronologically from 1928’s A Farthing Newspaper to 1949’s A Prize For Ezra Pound. It’s well worth the $40.00 price tag; I found my copy at a Barnes & Noble store. There’s even an attached bookmark ribbon.

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