Politics and the English Language

Do you listen to your politicians? I’m not asking do you follow their advice: I’m asking do you literally listen to them?

Just over seventy years ago, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled “Politics and the English Language”. I’ll give the link to it below, but I’d like to highlight a few of the things he says in it.

One major complaint – and remember, this is in 1946 – is that politicians write or deliver speeches in which “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning and more and more phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”.

To take one example: he looks at what he calls “dying metaphors”. Properly used, a metaphor helps by presenting a visual image which aids meaning and allows the reader/listener to understand better. However, according to Orwell, there is “a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves”.

He then lists examples: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed.

Not only are these clichés produced by lazy thinkers, Orwell argues, but the people using them often don’t know what they mean – what is a ‘rift’ for example, or what’s the difference in riding over something roughshod and just riding over it, and what are you doing when you toe the line?

I suggest, as we head into the election campaign, that we watch for politicians using any of the list Orwell has given us or other examples we may spot ourselves. (My own favourite is “going forward”, which is invariably meaningless, as our own WordMaster Perkin has shown by substituting “going backwards”.  I’m also not mad about “First of all”,  a sin which Gerry Adams commits regularly.)

Lazy language, lazy thought: that essentially is Orwell’s argument, and one I’d agree with. So be on the alert and be sure to let us know who said or wrote it, and when and where. Who knows? We may even shame some of our politicians into thinking before they speak.


17 Responses to Politics and the English Language

  1. paddykool April 21, 2017 at 9:03 am #

    ….”At the end of the day” , Jude, I’d agree ,to disagree, to agree…I think! ….Where is the mighty Perk BTW?

  2. John Patton April 21, 2017 at 9:03 am #

    You can’t level any of these linguistic misdemeanours at the Donald.

  3. angela April 21, 2017 at 9:31 am #

    Speaking for myself personally…….

  4. paddy maguire April 21, 2017 at 9:43 am #

    Never, never,never!

  5. Colmán April 21, 2017 at 11:09 am #

    I wouldn’t really agree with Orwell here. Oratory is not the most important thing when it comes to our policians but accountabilty and hardwork. George Orwell was gifted with a great imagination and was of course a great writer but I don’t really expect our politicians to be the same. The phrases that you mentioned above are perfectly fine. In the end of the day we don’t analyse the etymology of every single word we use and why should we.

    • Jude Collins April 21, 2017 at 12:31 pm #

      I agree, Colmán, we can get over-picky, but I think words do matter. We know that – Province, Six Counties, Ulster, terrorist, freedom fighter, traitor, tout, double agent…Words are how we share our thoughts and words can shape how we think. In Orwell’s 1984, the regime eliminated some words from the English vocabulary – like,as I remember, treason – on the grounds that it’s harder to grasp a concept if you don’t have the word for it. I’ll put up (although it’s in the essay) Orwell’s tips for the use of language. I think they’re all sport on. Btw (nothing personal and maybe I’ve missed the irony) but ‘end of the day’ is one of my most loathed expressions…Call me a pedant. Or whatever you want. As long as you don’t call me David McNarry….

      • paddykool April 21, 2017 at 1:20 pm #

        Ha ha …I knew that ‘end of the day’ would get the juices flowing. I used to work with a guy who always ended his spiel with that expression. It used to drive me crackers too…

      • Colmán April 21, 2017 at 3:51 pm #

        Haha, I knew you would pick up on that expression and I was in two minds whether to put it in or not. Maybe you would prefer the Irish ‘I ndeireadh na dála” or Anglo-Irish ‘at the heel of the hunt’ or worse still ‘when all is said and done” (Kevin McAleer or Flann O’Brien comes to mind)

        I prefer ‘in the end of the day’ to ‘In conclusion’ or ‘to end my argument’, or “therefore”. It isn’t really a cliche it is just a way to round up your discussion.

  6. Eamon April 21, 2017 at 3:50 pm #

    Let me be clear, we don’t want to kick the can down the road on this one.

  7. angela April 21, 2017 at 5:21 pm #

    ‘ if you know what I mean ” drives me nuts!

  8. dedeideoprofundis April 21, 2017 at 8:25 pm #

    Good topic for the day that’s in it?

  9. ANOTHER JUDE April 22, 2017 at 1:24 am #

    What about throwing the baby out with the bath water? That always makes me smile.

  10. Emmet April 22, 2017 at 4:42 am #

    Line in the Sand, crossing the red line and recently from the US vice president- ‘crossing a red line line in the sand’???
    Surely sand isn’t a very good place to have a line as it wouldn’t last long, and what type of idiot would consider painting a line in the sand.

  11. Emmet April 22, 2017 at 4:42 am #

    My grandmother used to say ‘look at the dirt behind your ears’.

  12. Jim Lynch April 22, 2017 at 11:46 am #

    This is my favorite, and not directed at anyone in particular;
    “You’re full of shit.”
    Lol, only in America.

    • Jude Collins April 22, 2017 at 1:39 pm #

      I like it, Jim, even though it’s a bit illogical. If someone judges you (OK, me) full of shit, they presumably are judging on what you’ve been saying. But if you’ve been spouting shit, it follows that you can no longer be full of shit. I think these guys need a course in logic…

  13. Scott Rutherford April 22, 2017 at 3:16 pm #

    I remember being scolded in Bishops in Belfast one time by a girl who said by ordering a gravy chip I was grammatically wrong. She said what I asked for when I said “gravy chip” was a single chip made with gravy so somehow. She said the correct term to use was a portion of chips with gravy sauce.

    Bet she was a bundle of laughs at a party.