As I Please

in Tribune

26 January 1945

George Orwell

THE OTHER night I attended a mass meeting of an organization called the League for European Freedom. Although officially an all-party organization—there was one Labour M.P. on the platform—it is, I think it is safe to say, dominated by the anti-Russian wing of the Tory Party.

I am all in favour of European freedom, but I feel happier when it is coupled with freedom elsewhere—in India, for example. The people on the platform were concerned with the Russian actions in Poland, the Baltic countries, etc., and the scrapping of the principles of the Atlantic Charter that those actions imply. More than half of what they said was justified, but curiously enough they were almost as anxious to defend our own coercion of Greece as to condemn the Russian coercion of Poland. Victor Raikes, the Tory M.P., who is an able and outspoken reactionary, made a speech which I should have considered a good one if it had referred only to Poland and Jugoslavia. But after dealing with those two countries he went on to speak about Greece, and then suddenly black became white, and white black. There was no booing, no interjections from the quite large audience—and none there, apparently, who could see that the forcing of quisling governments upon unwilling peoples is equally undesirable whoever does it.

It is very hard to believe that people like this are really interested in political liberty as such. They are merely concerned because Britain did not get a big enough cut in the sordid bargain that appears to have been driven at Teheran. After the meeting I talked with a journalist whose contacts among influential people are much more extensive than mine. He said he thought it probable that British policy will shortly take a violent anti-Russian swing, and that it would be quite easy to manipulate public opinion in that direction if necessary. For a number of reasons I don’t believe he was right, but if he did turn out to be right, then ultimately it is our fault and not that of our adversaries.

No one expects the Tory Party and its press to spread enlightenment. The trouble is that for years past it has been just as impossible to extract a grown-up picture of foreign politics from the left-wing press either. When it comes to such issues as Poland, the Baltic countries, Jugoslavia or Greece, what difference is there between the russophile press and the extreme Tory press? The one is simply the other standing on its head. The News Chronicle gives the big headlines to the fighting in Greece but tucks away the news that ‘force has had to be used’ against the Polish Home Army in small print at the bottom of a column. The Daily Worker disapproves of dictatorship in Athens, the Catholic Herald disapproves of dictatorship in Belgrade. There is no one who is able to say—at least, no one who has the chance to say in a newspaper of big circulation—that this whole dirty game of spheres of influence, quislings, purges, deportation, one-party elections and hundred per cent plebiscites is morally the same whether it is done by ourselves, the Russians or the Nazis. Even in the case of such frank returns to barbarism as the use of hostages, disapproval is only felt when it happens to be the enemy and not ourselves who is doing it.

And with what result? Well, one result is that it becomes much easier to mislead public opinion. The Tories are able to precipitate scandals when they want to partly because on certain subjects the Left refuses to talk in a grown-up manner. An example was the Russo-Finnish war of 1940. I do not defend the Russian action in Finland, but it was not especially wicked. It was merely the same kind of thing as we ourselves did when we seized Madagascar. The public could be shocked by it, and indeed could be worked up into a dangerous fury about it, because for years they had been falsely taught that Russian foreign policy was morally different from that of other countries. And it struck me as I listened to Mr Raikes the other night that if the Tories do choose to start spilling the beans about the Lublin Committee, Marshal Tito and kindred subjects, there will be—thanks to prolonged self-censorship on the Left—plenty of beans for them to spill.

But political dishonesty has its comic side. Presiding over that meeting of the League for European Freedom was no less a person than the Duchess of Atholl. It is only about seven years since the Duchess—‘the Red Duchess’ as she was affectionately nicknamed—was the pet of the Daily Worker and lent the considerable weight of her authority to every lie that the Communists happened to be uttering at the moment. Now she is fighting against the monster that she helped to create. I am sure that neither she nor her Communist ex-friends see any moral in this.

.     .     .     .     .

I WANT to correct an error that I made in this column last week. It seems that there is a plaque to William Blake, and that it is somewhere near St George’s Church in Lambeth. I had looked for one in that area and had failed to find it. My apologies to the L.C.C.

.     .     .     .     .

IF one cares about the preservation of the English language, a point one often has to decide is whether it is worth putting up a struggle when a word changes its meaning.

Some words are beyond redemption. One could not, I imagine, restore ‘impertinent’ to its original meaning, or ‘journal’, or ‘decimate’. But how about the use of ‘infer’ for ‘imply’ (‘He didn’t actually say I was a liar, but he inferred it’), which has been gaining ground for some years? Ought one to protest against it? And ought one to acquiesce when certain words have their meanings arbitrarily narrowed? Examples are ‘immoral’ (nearly always taken as meaning sexually immoral), and ‘criticize’ (always taken as meaning criticize unfavourably). It is astonishing what numbers of words have come to have a purely sexual significance, partly owing to the need of the newspapers for euphemisms. Constant use of such phrases as ‘intimacy took place twice’ has practically nulled the original meaning of ‘intimacy’, and quite a dozen other words have been perverted in the same way.

Obviously this kind of thing ought to be prevented if possible, but it is uncertain whether one can achieve anything by struggling against the current usage. The coming and going of words is a mysterious process whose rules we do not understand. In 1940 the word ‘wallop’, meaning mild beer, suddenly became current all over London. I had never heard it until that date, but it seems that it was not a new word, but had been peculiar to one quarter of London. Then it suddenly spread all over the place, and now it appears to have died out again. Words can also revive, for no very clear reason, after lying dormant for hundreds of years: for example the word ‘car’, which had never had any currency in England except in highflown classical poetry, but was resurrected about 1900 to describe the newly invented automobile.

Possibly, therefore, the degradation which is certainly happening to our language is a process which one cannot arrest by conscious action. But I would like to see the attempt made. And as a start I would like to see a few dozen journalists declare war on some obviously bad usage—for example, the disgusting verb ‘to contact’, or the American habit of tying an unnecessary preposition on to every verb—and see whether they could kill it by their concerted efforts.

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