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George Orwell

Photo of George Orwell

George Orwell

“He was passionate over the purity of prose, and in another essay he tears to bits some passages of contemporary writing. It is a dangerous game – the contemporaries can always retort – but it ought to be played, for if prose decays, thought decays and all the finer roads of communication are broken. Liberty, he argues, is connected with prose, and bureaucrats who want to destroy liberty tend to write and speak badly, and to use pompous or woolly or portmanteau phrases in which their true meaning or any meaning disappears. It is the duty of the citizen, and particularly of the practising journalist, to be on the lookout for such phrases or words and to rend them to pieces… Many critics besides Orwell are fighting for the purity of prose and deriding officialese, but they usually do so in a joking off-hand way, and from the aesthetic standpoint. He is unique in being immensely serious, and in connecting good prose with liberty. Like most of us, he does not define liberty, but being a liberal he thinks that there is more of it here than in Stalin’s Russia or in Franco’s Spain, and that we need still more of it, rather than even less, if our national tradition is to continue. If we write and speak clearly, we are likelier to think clearly and to remain comparatively free.”

E. M. Forster

Forster’s assessment of Orwell reminds us of the relationship between language and integrity. A commitment to say what is to be said and not to bullshit is a kind of integrity. Might a proliferation of bureaucratic newspeak be itself a threat to our integrity?

Suggested reading

  • Frankfurt. On Bullshit
  • Karl Kraus 1914. “In These Great Times,” Die Fackel (Vienna, Dec. 1914).
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