Resisting the Winds

Orwell and Meaningless Words

In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay titled “Politics and the English Language.” It is both philosophical and practical. Though penned some 74 years ago, it provides insightful commentary on the state of political and religious discussion today.

Meaningless Words


Orwell rightly criticizes “meaningless words” as words that “are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader.” Orwell notices how one of the primary reasons words become meaningless is because “not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides.”

Many of the examples Orwell gives of this class of meaningless words are still great examples for us today:

  • “Fascism”
  • “Democracy”
  • “Socialism”
  • “Freedom”
  • “Patriotic”
  • “Justice”
  • “Totalitarian”
  • “Science”
  • “Progressive” and
  • “Equality”

These remain as meaningless today as they were in 1946. They are used by both sides of the political aisle, but are used very differently. They are merely meant to indicate good and bad things, but nothing specific.

Intentional Dishonesty

It is important to note Orwell’s keen insight that the value of words being made meaningless is that they can be used deceptively,

“[Meaningless words] are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

–George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language

There are no greater examples of this intentional deceit in today’s society than how the terms “racism” or “racist” are employed.

The modern world simply does not use the word “racism” the way it has been classically understood. This is how so many get away with accusing Black Conservatives of being “White supremacists” and accusing White men who marry women of color and adopt minority children of “racism.” Racism has become a vague, all-encompassing term, and has in the process lost all meaning. The word has become so abused it led one pastor to satirically define a racist as, “Anyone winning a debate with a liberal.”

A Religious Example

Contemporary examples abound in religious conversations also. Perhaps the strongest example is the word “evangelical.” This term has absolutely no standard, widely agreed upon definition; and yet, it is used all of the time in public discourse.

Any person who wants to maintain the title “Christian,” but at the same time desires distance from historical Christian opinions will accomplish this by merely separating from “the evangelical church.”

The problem is the vast majority of people who rebuke the evangelical church would actually fall into the category of “evangelical” according to many reasonable and historic definitions.

Additionally, the word is almost always used with the prefix “White,” as in the “White evangelical church” or “White evangelicalism.” Yet, I never see “Asian evangelicalism” or “the Black evangelical church.”

Thus, it seems that “White evangelical” is now a redundancy. Thus, the already meaningless word has a prefix added to it which is also meaningless. Some are now even using the term “evangelical adjacent” which is replacing a word that has no meaning with a new word which also has no meaning.

According to Orwell, this is the kind of political and religious language that is not only deceitful but actually makes us dumber:

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

3 replies »

  1. The continual redefinition of terms boggles the mind. We most certainly have arrived at Orwell’s new world of newspeak. Once we accept a new definition we are led into other intellectual difficulties. An illegal alien meant someone who entered the nation without permission. Undocumented person ignores the act of disobedience to law. The point of the redefinition is to emphasize the person and de-emphasize the act. But it was always the act not the person that we object about.

    • Bingo. That is another great example of exactly what Orwell warns against. It’s a great example of how the destruction of language can be used to sway the culture in the direction we want. Our shared language is the bit in the mouth of the cultural horse so to speak.

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