Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

I think I found my Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 2 at Goodwill for pennies. Maybe it was a rummage sale. In either case I did not spend much money to obtain this 3,000-page behemoth. And every so often I pick it up and browse through it, like I did Sunday morning.

Fun facts I learned this time:

+ Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley were two different women, mother and daughter. Mom wrote about the rights of women in 1770, and daughter wrote Frankenstein in 1817. I had never thought about it, but whenever I saw either name I had always assumed the reference was to one woman.

+ Thomas Hardy wrote a very cool poem on the occasion of his 86th birthday.

+ I noticed an essay about “Racism in Heart of Darkness” that I’ll have to check out sometime. During an earlier foray through Norton, I found Joseph Conrad’s great essay “The Task of the Artist” which is his preface to that novel he wrote about the ship Narcissus. I wonder how modern literature professors deal with that title, anyway?

+ The main thing I learned Sunday is “The Task of the Artist” is not the only awesome essay in this book.

I settled on reading “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell (pen name of Eric Blair), because I figured the man wrote my favorite novel about politics and how nefarious people in that field misuse the English language, so it’s a safe bet I would enjoy this essay.

And oh, dear George/Eric. I love how he writes. Here are two of the best snippets, which only hint at his main theme, which is how sloppy use of language makes people sloppy and stupid. (And of course, reducing a dense essay to less than a dozen words does it no justice.)

This would make a great meme, although when surrounded by its context it’s even more powerful:

“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.”

I’m breathless. In an essay about writing clearly and precisely, those two sentences are crystal clear and undeniably precise.

Toward the end he offers six rules for clearer language, rules that every editor should consider posting next to his keyboard:

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 when 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.

I have now found two immortal essays while browsing Norton. I think I should browse Norton more often.

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