December 2, 2006

Orwell Originality

Posted in church, culture, non-fiction, politics, scripture at 7:26 am by Jerry

I just finished three of the four George Orwell essays in my latest purchase from the Penguin Books “Great Ideas” collection. The book is entitled – Why I Write. The last essay I just read (my favorite) is called – Politics and the English Language. It’s an incredible essay. I highly recommend it. Orwell challenges anyone’s use of non-fiction, including his own. Here’s some samples from this essay:

[…] worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. (106)

By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. (112)

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions, and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. (113-114)

I must confess, I immediately thought of people quoting scripture when I read the quotes above. But Orwell’s not just talking about church politics here. He says, “All issues are political issues”. This explains the classic fiction he wrote – Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Both are must reads. They’ve helped me re-interpret many of my church experiences even though the contents of either books, as far as I can remember, didn’t mention religion or church.

Imagine sitting next to Orwell listening to a speaker after reading this:

The appropriate noises are coming out of his larnyx, 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.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.

[…] political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. (114-115)

My obsession to articulate my thoughts and feelings properly just got worse after reading this essay.

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms… (116)

I’ve been bumping into the topic of sincerity alot lately.

And finally, some guidelines I can use to improve my blogging!

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. (118)

I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (119)

1 Comment »

  1. Marc said,

    My university profs always stressed rules 2 and 3.

    #2 is a personal pet-peever of mine. Sports commentators are the worst. Athletes, coaches and other sports-related people are fond of the word “utilize”. Although there is apparently an appropriate usage for that word, I can’t figure out what it is. I can’t think of any place where “utilize” can’t be replaced with “use”.

    My two cents…

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