Like Seneca, Orwell begins by identifying a problem and promising a solution. He hops almost immediately into an English language workshop, which centers around five paragraph-long examples. The insights I found most helpful were:
- Dying metaphors: The purpose of metaphors is to bring a thought alive by calling a vivid image to mind. Dead or dying metaphors belong to a different culture of a different day and no longer call up an image: e.g. grist to the mill.
- Meaningless words: This section is particularly timely when I think of the signs up in people’s yards that read: “Water is water. Life is life. Love is love.” It also makes me think of the movement-naming tactics used in the current political division of our country: “Pro-Choice” versus “Pro-Life” for example. Everyone is pro-choice! And everyone is pro-life! Neither label has any meaning in itself. “Black Lives Matter” is another obvious example, a truism with which all but the most despicable dregs of humanity would immediately agree.Excerpt: “In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive.”
- Rules: I like it when writers come up with simple procedures and rules instead of pulling “muses” and blackberry wine out of the ether with half-shut eyes. Here are Orwell’s 6 rules of style:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
The essay is didactic, as opposed to persuasive or personal. A didactic essay’s success relies largely upon the writer’s credibility as a thinker. Orwell is a remarkable thinker and prophet, which is why we still read 1984, and why this essay works. The bones of the essay are as straightforward as a PowerPoint lecture, and consequently, nothing distracts from the point he is trying to make. As far as his style goes, I think it’s fair to say that it’s good but not great. Orwell worked as a journalist, and his language is clear, but a sentence is not recognizably “Orwellian.” We apply that term to his ideas, not to his prose.