The Use of Language in Political Speaking

“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.”

This is a basic set of rules for political writing, given by George Orwell at the end of his essay Politics and the English Language. The essay focuses on the deterioration of the English language and how it has had a detrimental effect on political writing and speaking. One of Orwell’s arguments is that overly elaborate, pretentious and complex diction has become the defence of the politician who looks to hide the truth of what he is saying or conceal the fact that there is no truth to what he is saying at all.

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I was first shown this essay by a lecturer at my university because I had been trying to emulate academics who make intelligent points but are rarely concise or cogent. Copying them inevitably led to essays filled with unnecessarily long-winded sentences, complicated words that rarely expressed what I was trying to say and passive phrases that made my argument sound contrary and uncommitted. Orwell’s rules are very simple, yet most academic writers would benefit from following them; I now reread Politics and the English Language before every essay that I write. It is also helpful to remember that pretentious diction and over-complication are just as problematic for the English language as the use of slang, or the dropping of letters (both of which I am guilty of.)

Now I am even more intrigued by the political aspect which is, after all, its main focus. Rules 2 and 5 strike me as the most important in the list given above; if it is possible to say something simply, there is rarely any reason not to do so. Despite this, many politicians willingly fall back onto passive claims and recycled jargon whenever they are asked a difficult question (and the more important the politician, the more frequently this seems to happen.) Orwell writes “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity” and also identifies that a politician, when asked a question, will tend to rely on these linguistic follies when the true answer is too controversial to be given clearly. Not all politicians who use complicated language are necessarily equivocating or lying, and there is nothing wrong with possessing and using a wide vocabulary. However, a politician who consistently favours jargon over everyday words, or opts for an obscure, longer word when a shorter word is equally appropriate, will only provoke suspicion in his audience. Prioritising sounding intellectual over being clear and concise should never be encouraged in political speaking and writing.

Brand

A prime example of this use of language is Russell Brand’s recent interview with Jeremy Paxman. Before I criticise, I would like to emphasise that I understand and agree with Brand’s points regarding ineffective government, the lack of difference between many contemporary political parties and his anger at economic disparity. I disagree with not voting by way of protest, but I do accept his points on why he doesn’t vote himself. However, after watching the eight minute video clip for the first time, I did feel as if I had missed something, as if my vocabulary had fallen short of Brand’s (which is impressively large) and I hadn’t fully comprehended all of his arguments. After watching multiple times, I now think that Brand could do with reading Politics and the English Language.

His eyes may “involuntarily glaze” when he hears about people talking about politics in the existing Westminster framework, but mine glaze over when I hear phrases like “I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people, I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity.” I understand and agree with his criticism of the current political paradigm, but I find the latter half of this sentence vague and ineffective – after this interview, I am still not sure what these alternatives might be. He goes on to use further phrases and jargon that serve less purpose than they should. I do not think Brand is insincere, but he commits the mistake of using many words to say very little, a direct contradiction of Orwell’s basic set of rules. I think he is equivocating to an extent because, in reality, little of what he says is particularly new or interesting. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”: another enemy of clear language is having less to say than one might like.

Jeremy Coward

2 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article, the misuse of language to manipulate is the first tool of the manipulators.

    Example “Inflation”, the original definition was increase in the money supply NOT the effect of the increase of money supply i.e. price increases. This simple misstatement has allowed the state and central banks to siphon £trillions of goods to themselves without having produced anything in return. It used to be called clipping or fraud.

    • I find the philosophy of language really interesting for reasons like this.

      For instance, assuming that a word means one thing and not considering what it might mean to others is always detrimental to discussions and arguments, as participants usually fail to understand one another and the result is that the terminology is debated rather than the topic at hand.

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