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George Orwell
As I Please
Tribune, 17 March 1944

 
     

 

With no power to put my decrees into operation, but with as much authority as most of the exile ‘governments’ now sheltering in various parts of the world, I pronounce sentence of death on the following words and expressions:
     Achilles’ heel, jackboot, hydra-headed, ride roughshod over, stab in the back, petty-bourgeois, stinking corpse, liquidate, iron heel, blood-stained oppressor, cynical betrayal, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, jackal, hyena, blood-bath.
     No doubt this list will have to be added to from time to time, but it will do to go on with. It contains a fair selection of the dead metaphors and ill-translated foreign phrases which have been current in Marxist literature for years past. There are, of course, many other perversions of the English language besides this one. There is official English, or Stripetrouser, the language of White Papers, Parliamentary debates (in their more decorous moments) and B.B.C. news bulletins. There are the scientists and the economists, with their instinctive preference for words like ‘contraindicate’ and
‘deregionalization’. There is American slang, which for all its attractiveness probably tends to impoverish the language in the long run. And there is the general slovenliness of modern English speech with its decadent vowel sounds (throughout the London area you have to use sign language to distinguish between ‘threepence’ and ‘three-halfpence’) and its tendency to make verbs and nouns interchangeable. But here I am concerned only with one kind of bad English, Marxist English, or Pamphletese, which can be studied in the Daily Worker, the Labour Monthly, Plebs, the New Leader, and similar papers.
     Many of the expressions used in political literature are simply euphemisms or rhetorical tricks. ‘Liquidate’ for instance (or ‘eliminate’) is a polite word for ‘to kill’, while ‘realism’ normally means ‘dishonesty’. But Marxist phraseology is peculiar in that it consists largely of translations. Its characteristic vocabulary comes ultimately from German or Russian phrases which have been adopted in one country after another with no attempt to find suitable equivalents. Here, for instance, is a piece of Marxist writing – it happens to be an address delivered to the Allied armies by the citizens of Pantelleria. The citizens of Pantelleria

pay grateful homage to the Anglo-American forces for the promptness with which they have liberated them from the evil yoke of a megalomaniac and satanic régime which, not content with having sucked like a monstrous octopus the best energies of true Italians for twenty years, is now reducing Italy to a mass of ruins and misery for one motive – only the insane personal profit of its chiefs, who, under an ill-concealed mask of hollow, so-called patriotism, hide the basest passions, and, plotting together with the German pirates, hatch the lowest egoism and blackest treatment while all the time, with revolting cynicism, they tread on the blood of thousands of Italians.

This filthy stew of words is presumably a translation from the Italian, but the point is that one would not recognize it as such. It might be a translation from any other European language, or it might come straight out of the Daily Worker, so truly international is this style of writing. Its characteristic is the endless use of ready-made metaphors. In the same spirit, when Italian submarines were sinking the ships that took arms to Republican Spain, the Daily Worker urged the British Admiralty to ‘sweep the mad dogs from the seas’. Clearly, people capable of using such phrases have ceased to remember that words have meanings.
     A Russian friend tells me that the Russian language is richer than English in terms of abuse, so that Russian invective cannot always be accurately translated. Thus when Molotov referred to the Germans as ‘cannibals’, he was perhaps using some word which sounded natural in Russian, but to which ‘cannibal’ was only a rough approximation. But our local Communists have taken over, from the defunct Inprecor and similar sources, a whole series of these crudely translated phrases, and from force of habit have come to think of them as actual English expressions. The Communist vocabulary of abuse (applied to Fascists or Socialists according to the ‘line’ of the moment) includes such terms as hyena, corpse, lackey, pirate, hangman, bloodsucker, mad dog, criminal, assassin. Whether at first, second or third hand, these are all translations, and by no means the kind of word that an English person naturally uses to express disapproval. The language of this kind is used with an astonishing indifference as to its meaning. Ask a journalist what a jackboot is, and you will find that he does not know. Yet he goes on talking about jackboots. Or what is meant by ‘to ride roughshod’? Very few people know that either. For that matter, in my experience, very few Socialists know the meaning of the word ‘proletariat’.
     You can see a good example of Marxist language at its worst in the words ‘lackey’ and ‘flunkey’. Pre-revolutionary Russia was still a feudal country in which hordes of idle men-servants were part of the social set-up; in that context ‘lackey’, as a word of abuse, had a meaning. In England, the social landscape is quite different. Except at public functions, the last time I saw a footman in livery was in 1921. And, in fact, in ordinary speech, the word ‘flunkey’ has been obsolete since the nineties, and the word ‘lackey’ for about a century. Yet they and other equally inappropriate words are dug up for pamphleteering purposes. The result is a style of writing that bears the same relation to writing real English as doing a jigsaw puzzle bears to painting a picture. It is just a question of fitting together a number of ready-made pieces. Just talk about hydra-headed jack-boots riding roughshod over blood-stained hyenas, and you are all right. For confirmation of which, see almost any pamphlet issued by the Communist Party – or by any other political party, for that matter.


Copyright The Estate of Eric Blair
Reproduced here under educational Fair Use law