Politics and the English Language

I was a little surprised to see that hundreds of readers clicked on the link to George Orwell’s great essay “Politics and the English Language” in my post yesterday on English usage. It is an essay that bears repeated rereading. If you haven’t read it before, please check it out.

I want to draw your attention to Orwell’s contrast of good writing with bad writing. “I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort,” Orwell writes, and provides this well-known verse from Ecclesiastes in the stark beauty of the King James Version:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in Orwell’s translation “into modern English of the worst sort”:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Orwell’s translation “into modern English of the worst sort” is bad writing that is considerably beyond the abilities of eminences including Chairman Jim Leach of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Leach reaches a new depth in the worst sort of modern English; he needs to work to attain the comprehensibility of Orwell’s “modern English of the worst sort.”

In Orwell’s example, we understand what is said, but it is puffed up and instantly forgettable. Leach proceeds directly to the puffed up and the forgettable without passing through intelligibility. If Orwell were writing today about Leach, I think he would give us something like Andrew Ferguson’s essay “Civility, Obama style.”


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