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(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.
Those who care about clarity of thought and responsible use of rhetoric would do well to consult them often, and to read, or re-read, Orwell’s essay.
“I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you,” Apeneck Sweeney tells his girlfriend Doris as he tries to explain how it is that “death is life and life is death.” Though he dwells near the bottom of the cultural food chain, T. Eliot’s protagonist nonetheless identifies a problem that has high-brow implications, and the 20th-century jitters, written all over it.
What Orwell’s essay championed was nothing more or less than writing committed to plain sense, a process he described as “picking words for their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer.” Unfortunately, those 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.
Anyone who writes in an institutional context—be it academia, journalism, or the corporate world—acquires all sorts of bad habits that must be broken with deliberate intent.
“The process” of learning bad writing habits “is reversible” Orwell promises, “if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.” How should we proceed?
He then went on to finish the sentence by making it clear just how debased most political writing had become: “and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” Orwell had recently completed when he wrote these words.
He had had a bellyful of the worst that willful obfuscation could offer and set about cataloguing the sins of dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, and pretentious diction.
What constitutes “outright barbarous” wording he does not say, exactly.
As the internet cliché has it: Your Mileage May Vary.