Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Culture War Politics And The English Language

Orwell and the mind-deadening neologisms of our time.

(Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

The relationship between language and politics — how each can inform or derange the other — was never better explored than in George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” After reading these in my early teens, political writing became a vocational challenge of sorts to me. How to say things as clearly and honestly as Orwell? How to “let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about,” as he deftly put it?

Language is always in flux, of course. But Orwell was not talking about the way in which spoken English has always mutated and shifted from the ground up. Like most writers, he thrilled to new permutations of idiom and invention. He was talking rather about how people in power can use and create new language to deceive, conceal or confuse.

That’s what “newspeak” was: a language in which it becomes hard to understand something because the words describing it are too vague and abstract to mean anything recognizable; and, more worryingly, a language in which it becomes impossible to know something because the language itself has already excised the words needed to understand it.

It was during the war in Iraq that Orwell’s insistence on clear language first came roaring back. This time, the newspeak was coming from the neocon right. We heard the term “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe what any sane person would instantly call “torture.” Or “extraordinary rendition” — which meant kidnapping in order to torture. There was “environmental manipulation” — freezing naked human beings to near-death and back again. All the terms followed Orwell’s rules for new words “needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” All the new terms were opaque and longer than the original.


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