Why Orwell Hated the Cliche
For what would have been George Orwell’s 99th birthday, here are reflections on his relationship to writing and language from Lawrence Wright:
Orwell’s proposition is that modern English, especially written English, is so corrupted by bad habits that it has become impossible to think clearly. The main enemy, he believed, was insincerity, which hides behind the long words and empty phrases that stand between what is said and what is really meant.
A scrupulous writer, Orwell notes, will ask himself: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What fresh image will make it clearer? Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? The alternative is simply “throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you — concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear."…
…Orwell optimistically sets forward six simple rules to improve the state of the English language: guidelines that anyone, not just professional writers, can follow.
But I’m not going to tell you what they are. You’ll have to re-read [Politics and the English Language (PDF)] yourself. I’m only going to speak about Rule No. 1, which is never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
For me, that’s the hardest rule and no doubt the reason that it’s No. 1. Cliches, like cockroaches in the cupboard, quickly infest a careless mind. I constantly struggle with the prefabricated phrases that substitute for simple, clear prose…
…"Political language,” Orwell reminds us, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits.”