COVID-19, Politics and the English Language

Described to me by one academic as “a reaction to the age of political bullsh—”, George Orwell’s classic essay, Politics and the English Language, should be any writers’ gold standard. I personally think that Orwell’s Six Rules should be hung from a wall in the office of every journalist, editor and academic; not to mention, every business consultant and political assistant.

  1. ‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’

Alas my wishes will never materialise. But in our current health, economic and political crisis, our ability to transmit ideas has never been more important. Unfortunately, it is Rule 5 that has been trampled on in the government response and has provoked frustrations over clarity.

As I write, I am hands over keyboard, ready for the next COVID-19 briefing, and poised to look out for the customary, rehearsed one liners, deliberate ambiguity and (what Orwell deemed to be) ‘pretentious diction’.

And that confirms that Orwell is as relevant in 1946 as in 2020.

Orwell’s notion that modern prose and speech is moving ‘away from concreteness’ continues to stare us (the laypeople) in the face. Matt Hancock has apparently “upgraded the guidance” on social interaction, with his method of finding this upgrade being “the right thing”. Meanwhile, he has “high degree of confidence” in the supply of oxygen, when asked how he was to improve oxygen supply across the country. Far from the jargon-free utopia that Orwell and I would dream of, these dressed up phrases diminish the clarity necessary in a time of crisis through being a product of ‘slovenliness and vagueness’. Offering little in the way of coherent answers, these jargon-laden answers are the very source of confusion between Government and its examiners.

To cap it all off, in an affront to meaningful words, Hancock described law as an “emphatic requirement” of his own, and called for “perseverance in the face of great challenges”. Where Orwell criticises the use of such meaningless words as an attempt at deception, in 2020, deception has clearly been replaced with deliberate ambiguity. Indeed, there exists a small difference. The former, an attempt to hide or distort the truth. The latter, a coping mechanism of sorts. An attempt at changing the lens on the camera, rather than changing the object being photographed.

Yet regardless of this distinction, one of Orwell’s metaphors comes to mind. Here is Orwell in full flow:

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”

Exemplified by Matt Hancock today, our modern prose is full of bad habits. It is often unclear, sometimes intentionally complex and jargon-laden. Never have we needed clarity, simplicity and easy language more than our present circumstance of taking daily directions from central government. In the age of 24/7 news and mass scrutiny of government, I am confident that it will pay dividends for the first brave person/poor soul, to write and speak with honesty and clarity. I do not pretend for one second that this will be popular, easy or even possible, yet it is something, that in a time of crisis we should aim for.

Churchill, speaking before Orwell’s publication, convinces me of the effectiveness that comes with clear language. “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”. In this – the most recognisable section of any speech given by Churchill – Churchill uses no jargon-laden words, no ‘long words where a short one will do’ and just one word from a classical derivation. Whilst no politician in our modern era competes for Churchill’s oratory skill, a language following Orwell’s Six Rules is most certainly one that maximises the coherence of the interaction between subjects and their leaders.

I am in no doubt that throughout the course of writing this, I have broken Orwell’s Six Rules multiple times. But surely in the name of good governance at a time of crisis our leaders must turn away from this new ‘age of political bullsh—’.

Written by Joshua Castle 

Sources:

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (London: Penguin, 2013) p.19.

Ibid. p.8

Matt Hancock, Coronavirus Press Conference, BBC: 05/04/2020

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, p.1

 

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