George Orwell is famous for “1984,” a dystopia of such vivid imagination that we’ve been calling oppressive institutions “Orwellian” ever since its publication over 70 years ago. Orwell’s work as a journalist is less known. Together with his other novels and poems, the Orwell Foundation lists dozens of essays and other works showing the range of his journalistic interests.
One essay we like in this collection is “Politics and the English language.” Its premise is that we can use language to sharpen the way we think (you can tell why this would be a favorite at a company called Verb). Orwell explains how unclear language “is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” For example, he writes, instead of saying that you want to kill your opponents, you might say something like this:
“We must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods.”
Orwell’s other examples of twisted language are gold. In one case he turns a verse from the Ecclesiastes into what he calls, deadpan, “Modern English.” Go read them all. The effect is comical, until you realize with horror that this is how you sometimes end up writing out of habit.
Luckily the effect is reversible, says Orwell. The same way you use murky language to obfuscate your thoughts, you can use clear language to see your ideas in new light. And he gives a series of tips to achieve sharper thinking through language:
- 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.
George Orwell, 1946.
We’ve liked these simple rules for years now. Whenever they come to mind, they have have helped us stand out. To make them more current, we asked Verb’s brilliant resident artist Vicente Marti to create five illustrations of George Orwell the journalist, each reminding us of one of his rules. You’ll start seeing them around Verb’s website and social media channels. We hope they help you as much as they help us.
Orwell died shortly after finishing “1984,” already suffering from tuberculosis, the plague of that time. He never knew he would become famous for evoking our clearest mental images of modern tyranny. We can pay him back by using his rules to make our future a little less dark.