Orwell examines relationship between language and thought

Various political commentators and thinkers often use the word “Orwellian” to describe the totalitarian ideologies they perceive today, alluding back to Orwell’s dystopia 1984, but George Orwell would take offense at the use of his name as a synonym for these ideologies. Orwell’s name should be synonymous with clear, concise, and prophetic writing. One of his greatest contributions to political thought is a short essay titled “Politics and the English Language.” This document is a profound insight into the relationship between thought and language.

The thesis of Orwell’s essay is that language and thought are bound to each other as mutual dependents. When one degrades or is reinforced, the other follows. This observation is especially true in politics. He argues, therefore, that our response to ideological thought should not remain in the realm of thought, but should find a strong foundation in the language we use.

He writes that the English language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He notes that the process is reversible, but we must make every effort to think clearly, and then make our language adhere to our thoughts. He summarizes: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

He challenges his readers to examine their writing for dying metaphors, operators or verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. These abuses of language are some of the most significant sources of political degradation. We must challenge vapid clichés and euphemisms that distort the truth, for the obscuration of the truth is the worst thing for society.

For example, Orwell notes the popular use of the word “democracy,” writing, “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it.” In contrast, if a country is “undemocratic,” its regime is viewed as unjust. Democracy, however, is simply a type of regime: its application can be either just or unjust.

Orwell’s analysis, however, extends beyond the meaning of “democracy.” His framework supplies a means of understanding all political writing. Orwell writes, “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Although he is referring to the genocides of World War II, the language of the pro-abortion movement operates in the same way, making the killing of an innocent respectable in the eyes of the public. One of the most relevant euphemisms used today replaces “abortion” with “reproductive health care.” Abortion is not reproductive, nor is it health care. It is completely and wholly opposite to reproduction and health care.

The misuse of pronouns today is another way in which political language makes lies sound truthful. A plural pronoun cannot describe a singular person. Yet, there are many individuals today who insist that they be referred to in the third-person plural, as singular individuals. Others ask to be referred to with the pronouns of the opposite gender. This request denies the reality that humans are immutably either male or female, and that the masculine and feminine pronouns, respectively, correspond exactly to these sexual realities.

A third example of the political language which Orwell identifies as dangerous is seen in the NCAA’s recent recognition and support of Lia Thomas as the women’s national champion in the 500-yard freestyle race. Thomas, a man, is referred to as a “trans woman.” These words legitimize Thomas’s competition in the women’s division, since, according to Thomas’s supporters, the word “trans” simply modifies his status as a woman, but does not negate it. Yet, this language obscures the truth. Thomas is a man and should not be competing in the women’s division. The language “trans woman” is a euphemism for “man,” and confuses our understanding of sexuality.

Orwell would be dismayed by the phrases “no human is illegal” and “love is love,” often seen displayed on yard signs in suburban neighborhoods. These phrases sound fine, but what do they mean? Underneath their facade, they push the unthinking toward radical political positions, substituting clear, comprehensive thinking with unobjectionable euphemisms devised by the progressive left.

Orwell is certain that he commits the very linguistic faults against which he argues, as we all do, but the importance of his essay lies in his efforts to improve his written communication. We all reject the truth in some way, according to our individual failings. In order to solve this problem of language, each one of us needs to pray earnestly and contritely for our own personal conversion back toward God, to engage in political friendship in an intentional and radical way, and to order our language to the truth, following Orwell’s lead.

We need a politics of love and truth, not a politics of power and deception. If we abuse words to serve our own ends, we fail in our duties of friendship. We are all sinners, and this solution is not perfect. Nevertheless, Orwell presents an alternative to the culture of propaganda that has the potential to transform our discourse and promote political friendship.

Zef Crnkovich is a senior from Falls Church, Virginia, majoring in classics. As a dispenser of (often accurate) hot takes, he kindly requests that you please send your hot takes to jcrnkovi@nd.edu.

Photo credit: Lorie Shaull, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License