The first piece of assigned reading I did as a freshman at Hamilton College, way back in the fall of 2006, was George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language. It was assigned by my American Political Process professor, who believed we needed to understand the role of language in discourse before we could form coherent thoughts and opinions. To this day I remember reading Orwell’s critique and the feeling of clarity it gave me. Ever since I became interested in politics in high school, I had taken the tedious nature of most political writing as a given. It was simply how serious people with serious things to talk about wrote. I never questioned its usefulness or even acknowledged it, unless you count the feeling of dread I would get when assigned readings in my politics and history classes.
Orwell’s essay was a revelation of the most basic, but powerful, kind. Like Newton’s “discovery” of gravity, he revealed something that had always been there but I’d never truly noticed. How we use language is a choice, both individually and socially, that impacts every aspect of our lives. And this choice sparks a cycle that can be either virtuous or vicious. As Orwell notes, English “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” His goal was to stop this cycle.
Orwell’s essay opened my eyes to the power of language and kindled my interest in another iconic but renegade artist: George Carlin. I had heard some of Carlin’s material before, but I really came to appreciate his work my freshman year and even had the luck of seeing him perform at a nearby casino. Like Orwell, Carlin was fascinated by language and focused on it in his standup. He lamented the “softening” of our language, ridiculed how we talk about minorities, lampooned silly expressions we use, and railed against attempts to control what we can and cannot say. He recognized, as Orwell did, that language and politics are deeply related, and that our current use of bad language makes for bad politics. As Carlin said, “The quality of our thoughts and ideas could only be as good as the quality of our language.”
Together, Carlin and Orwell showed me that language is like any other tool and prepared me to use it properly throughout my time at college. I mention all of this because I recently re-read Orwell’s piece as both a symbolic and actual refresher on the use of language. I just started a new degree program in Washington, D.C. (which is why you haven’t heard from me in a while) and figured it would be wise to start this program the same way I started Hamilton: with a reminder that words matter. So on that note, I hope you click on the links I’ve provided here and enjoy some great Carlin standup as well as read one of Orwell’s great essays. After all, as the famous author noted at the end of his piece, “One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase – some jackboot, Achille’s heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse – into the dustbin where it belongs.”