Orwell Updated

George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language” was published in Cyril Connolly’s journal Horizon in April 1946. Its power today is its astonishing prescience. Within six months of Orwell’s untimely death at forty-six in 1950, Mary McCarthy wrote of “a leap into an Orwellian future”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the Orwellian as “Characteristic or suggestive of the writings of George Orwell, esp. of the totalitarian state depicted in his dystopian account of the future, Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

With governments practising command-and-control repression during the Covid outbreak and promoting censorship of what they vaguely call “misinformation” and “disinformation”, it is hardly surprising that Orwellian is so widely used now. Orwell predicted the relentless surveillance of our lives, especially online. He gave us the slogan “Big Brother is watching you”, accompanied by the lie all governments tell: that it’s for our own good. Isn’t that what they said during Covid? 

Orwell invented the Thought Police, who seek out and punish “thoughtcrimes”—exactly what happens when someone is banned from social media, de-platformed or cancelled. He gave us the Ministry of Truth, which pumps out slogans such as “War is peace” and rewrites history to fit official doctrine. This is not unlike school children being taught “Gender is fluid” and that Australians should be ashamed of their history. 

Orwell coined the term “doublethink”—the ability to believe in two contradictory ideas at the same time. Now we are told all cultures are equal but indigenous culture is better than Western culture or, as the pigs in Animal Farm might put it: “All cultures are equal, but some are more equal than others.” What we are living through today must have existed in embryonic form in his lifetime, but Orwell alone had the eyes to see. 

In “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell discusses a “catalogue of swindles and perversions” that destroy English as a meaningful form of communication. He lists four of them: dying metaphors; operators or verbal false limbs; pretentious diction; and meaningless words.

My twenty-first-century list is: weaponised words; weasel words; empty words; and uncontested words.

Weaponised words have an accepted meaning in dictionaries but are changed into “attack words” of verbal assault. Take fascist. It was coined by Benito Mussolini, who created the National Fascist Party in Italy. Since then, fascism has come to mean “a right-wing political system in which people’s lives are completely controlled by the state and no political opposition is allowed” (Oxford English Dictionary). But that’s not how the word is used today. 

Fascist has been weaponised by the Left to attack anyone who doesn’t agree with them or expresses even mild support for right-of-centre politics. This is an exceptionally foolish misuse, because the people so labelled often support smaller government and less centralised control, the exact opposite of fascism. It is also dangerous, because it makes it almost impossible to use the word fascist correctly to describe bullying, freedom-denying command-and-control policies. So, fascist in Western democracies has come to mean “people the Left don’t like”.

Another term weaponised by the Left is “hard right”. Media outlets happily label anyone they disagree with “hard right” but never use the parallel expression “hard left”.

Notorious is another weaponised word. One news outlet referred to a rally in Victoria called “Let Women Speak”, which defended the right of biological women and girls to have their own safe spaces, and not have transgender persons (often with penises) in their change rooms or toilets, as “the now notorious Let Women Speak rally”. Notorious really means “famous or well known for something bad”. Using it in a disputed context is an abuse of the language. If you don’t like Nigel Farage, all you have to do is call him “the notorious Nigel Farage”. No need for arguments, evidence or reason—a weaponised word will do the work for you.

Apartheid has also been weaponised by the Left. It was coined in South Africa in 1947 from the Afrikaans word for “separateness”. The National Party of South Africa used it as a slogan in the 1948 election which brought it to power. It describes that party’s odious policy of constitutional racism. The Australian Greens and others, however, call Israel an “apartheid” state, even though Israel’s declaration of independence recognises the equality of all its citizens and residents, including the Arabs who comprise about 20 per cent of Israel’s population. Arab Israelis are members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, whereas in South Africa, under apartheid, blacks couldn’t vote let alone sit in parliament. On the Right, some opponents of the Voice claimed it would bring “apartheid” to Australia. This was as bad as the weaponising done by the progressive side of politics.

The expression hate speech has been weaponised. It was first recorded in the US in 1938 and meant “a speech or address inciting hatred or intolerance”, but now it means a statement with which the Left disagrees. Those who claim that men who identify as women are real women, attack anyone who disagrees with them as being guilty of “hate speech”.

This is simply untrue. Disagreement is not hate speech. Yet someone expressing Christian beliefs can be accused of hate speech, as happened to Israel Folau. Hard-core Marxists are safe, but anyone right-of-centre, beware!

Weasel words was originally an American expression meaning “an equivocating or ambiguous word which takes away the force or meaning of the concept being expressed”. Its most common practitioners are (surprise, surprise) politicians. 

For example, Labor used Brittany Higgins’s rape allegation to attack the Morrison government relentlessly. Labor Senator Katy Gallagher was asked by Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds in Parliament in June 2021 if she had been fed information about the allegations. Gallagher snapped: “No one had any knowledge. How dare you!” Did she mislead parliament? Did her words match what we now know from leaked recordings? She has now changed her story saying: “I was given some information.” In this sentence, some is a classic weasel word that seeks to “take away the force or meaning of the concept being expressed”.

Intention is the weasel word for any politician who wants to appear to make a commitment which can later be plausibly denied. Intention means “a plan or desire to do something”. If something is likely to be unpopular with the voters, intention is the weasel word used to rule it out, as in “we have no intention to make any changes to superannuation”. Intentions can change at any time—your intention today may not be your intention tomorrow. Variations include “we have no plans to”, “we are not focusing on”, or “we are not thinking about”—they are all the same verbal sleight-of-hand. They all sound like a commitment, but they are not.

Empty words are used by public figures to fill a silence. There are thousands. Eric Partridge catalogued them in his Dictionary of Cliches. Here are a few current ones.

Moving forward uttered by a politician (or anyone else) is devoid of meaning, since the real issue is what direction counts as “forward”. If they just mean “forward in time”, this will happen without their help. A politician boldly offering of policy of “moving backwards” would be more impressive.

Tagging and so on to the end of a list is just lazy, a way to avoid enumerating, or even bothering to know, what else should be on the list. All things considered is an empty phrase that fills a bit of space while a politician madly scrambles for something remotely relevant to say. Explanations often begin with as can be expected, telling us that (beyond those empty words) no reason will be given.

Begs the question is almost always misused, when the speaker means “raises the question” (itself flummery to the get speaker off the hook of having to supply any answers). Properly, begs the question refers to a logical fallacy that philosophers call a petitio principii, a circular argument in which the truth of the conclusion is assumed in the premise.

Behind the scenes, if it means anything, means “Yes, I know it looks like I’m doing nothing but … but …” Clear English says things, political utterances too often say nothing.

Uncontested words cry out to be challenged. During the summer of 2019-20, the widespread bushfires were repeatedly described as “unprecedented”. It suited the climate catastrophist narrative and was constantly repeated by the major Australian networks, the BBC, and newspapers around the world. 

Were the fires unprecedented? In 2019-20 thirty-four people died. Ten years earlier, in Victoria’s “Black Saturday” fires 173 people died—five times as many. How many hectares of unpopulated bushland have burnt is a matter of conjecture and if you are promoting climate catastrophism you will inflate it. The number of homes lost was about the same in both disasters but in terms of deaths the earlier fire was worse, yet unprecedented went uncontested.

Then there is battery. Energy Minister Chris Bowen plans to source all Australia’s energy from the sun and wind plus batteries—which are important since the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun sets every night. This is an area for engineers, not wordsmiths, but the largest battery array in Australia can only power Adelaide for two hours, so accepting batteries as adequate without contest cheapens the language. 

Sorry is another uncontested word. “I’m sorry you are upset” shifts the blame onto the recipient for being a wimp and implies they should “toughen up, buttercup” but the main problem with sorry is that it is informative, reporting on the speaker’s feelings, not performative, such as “I apologise”. Saying sorry in place of an apology should not go uncontested, especially by political journalists.

Then there’s “always was, always will be” (implicitly, Aboriginal land). The editor of my last book used this in his signature block and many thousands are happy to endorse it. But anyone who says, “Always was, always will be” and owns property whether as an individual, a retail chain, an airline, or a sporting body should be challenged to hand the title deeds to the local native title council.

Orwell once said, “All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer,” but he thought, “One ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.” He hoped that once his readers were alerted to his “catalogue of swindles and perversions” they would cast it “into the dustbin where it belongs”.

I do not share Orwell’s confidence. I fear that twenty-first-century swindles and perversions are deliberate linguistic abuses for malicious purposes. We cannot appeal to the goodwill of the perpetrators when their intent is to deceive us to achieve a political goal.

If they won’t do better, what can we do? First, be sensitive to how words are used and call out linguistic frauds. When we speak up we alert others to the linguistic three-card-trick being played. Second, take care not to fall into the same linguistic cesspool. Instead of accepting the words of the political class, find ways to express ideas that are clear and honest. And third, ensure that the magician’s glib words never fool us!

Kel Richards is an author, journalist and broadcaster whose many books include The Story of Australian English. This article is an edited version of an address he recently gave at the Sydney Institute.


2 thoughts on “Orwell Updated

  • Daffy says:

    The most prevalent ‘weasel word’ has to be, actually, the weasel phrase, ‘in place’. No longer are regulations in force, they are ‘in place’ (whatever that might mean). Storm warnings are often ‘in place. So are policies, I’ve noticed. The committee is frequently ‘in place’. In most cases, however, ‘in place’, adds nothing and the phrase is redundant. If you have policies, for example, the verb ‘to have’ does the full job.
    In other uses, there are better, accurate and more descriptive, and dare I say, grown-ups words for the educated to use|
    And don’t get me started on ‘roll-out’, which happens to everything that is introduced, commenced, supplied, started, distributed, opened, provided, initiated, expanded…
    Kick-start? I’ll leave that for another time, dear reader.

    • Daffy says:

      March 9: we’ve just had a little earthquake. I note the rare correct (non-metaphorical) and abundant use of the word, the seismology term, “epicentre” in connection with it. Epicentre: the point on the surface of the globe directly above the centre, or ‘focus’ of the ‘quake. Not ‘the really really serious, pay attention to me’ ‘centre’ as loved by the dullards who write TV news scripts.

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