George Orwell’s 6 Rules for Good Writing are 6 Rules for a Good Life
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”
“Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” So began one of George Orwell’s most celebrated essays, ‘Politics and the English Language’. He was writing in 1946, Europe was broken by the Second World War and on the verge of a cold war that threatened to wipe out civilisation.
To write in dismay about the state of language when so much of your world has been reduced to rubble seems like worrying about a stain on the carpet when the house around you has burned down. But Orwell’s point is nuanced and prescient.
Orwell understood the power of language well. As a writer covering the rise of fascism and Stalinism, he understood how language could change behaviour. The Nazis robbed Jews of their dignity through language in the years before the Holocaust started. His novel 1984 tells the story of Big Brother, a futuristic totalitarian regime that rewrites language to constrain and mould the thoughts of the people it rules over.
These ideas anticipated “speech act theory” developed at Oxford University in the 1960s which saw the use of language being an action in the world, as opposed to merely describing the world. If you call somebody an idiot, it’s not simply a matter of truth or falsity in that statement, it’s also a verbal assault.
If a government describes civilian casualties of a bombing as “collateral damage”, those civilians are being dehumanised. In 1984 the government uses propaganda slogans such as “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength”, and develops a “Newspeak” language to curtail freedom of thought (and therefore action).
While Orwell’s horrific vision of a totalitarian future was a caricature, the writer understood that language was in a poor state and that it reflected the state of post-war society, still reeling from years of chaos. The abuse of language was making matters worse.
Orwell’s ire is for two particular ways in which good language falls by the wayside: laziness and politics. The former is sloppiness, the latter is willful distortion.