Meaningless Words and the English Language

I’ve been re-teaching George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946), and the following has occurred to me.

First, some context: one of the major sins of contemporary English for Orwell is the reliance on “meaningless words,” by which he means words that “do not point to any discoverable object, [and] are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader.”[i] His initial examples of this derive from art criticism, but he quickly directs our attention to more germane political examples in order to flesh out why someone would want to use meaningless words. He writes,

Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. 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. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality. (132-33)

A few things are worth noting here. For one thing, whereas the focus in the art criticism segment of the passage is on the sin of omission on the part of the reader, who hardly expects a meaningless word to refer to a “discoverable object,” here in the political section of the passage Orwell claims that we have a sin of commission (there are deceitful politicians and ideologues who have their “own private definition, but allo[w their] hearer to think [they mean] something quite different”). So the political use of meaningless words is what makes such words more than just a peccadillo, even when all that seems to be at stake on the surface is whether or not we can agree that the essential thing about Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs (1915), say, is its vitality or its deadness.

So far, so good.

The trouble appears when we reconsider what Orwell’s claims in the political part of the passage add up to, which seems to be this: meaningless words are dangerous because they press our buttons rather than engage our minds. Instead of asking a politician at a debate or a talking head on a television program or a canvasser on the street what she or her party or her preferred candidate mean by democracy or socialism or justice or freedom, we simply feel warm and full of approbation (or at least experience the lure of such feelings) for the things to which those words get attached. We cheer (or are made to feel as though we should cheer) when a country gets called democratic, and we boo (or are made to feel as though we ought to boo) when it gets called fascist or totalitarian. Meaningless words just affect us; there certainly are meanings to be disclosed and/or debated within them, but so long as they are truly meaningless words, we seldom (or never) think to do so because thinking is not what they are asking of us when we encounter them in the world.

With this in mind, it’s hard not to notice something quite damning about Orwell’s definition of politics in this essay: “politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia” (137). There is certainly no discoverable object to be found here, nor are we being asked to seek it out. Orwell is merely pressing a button in the expectation that our boos, hisses, and jeers of recognition will promptly kick in. And without a clearer sense of what politics means, it’s altogether uncertain what Orwell would have us understand the “political regeneration” wrought by his suggestions to entail beyond a warm fuzzy feeling about a future goodness shorn free from a present badness (128).

Which is a roundabout way of saying that politics is a meaningless word in “Politics and the English Language.”

[i] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angos (New York: Harcourt, 1968), 4:127-40, here 132, further references provided parenthetically.