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Should we always say what we mean, and mean what we say? Reflections on politics and the English language

Seminar Center for Global Humanities Lecture/Seminar Series

Richard Toye

Richard Toye

Professor of Modern History, University of Exeter

It seems obvious that political speech ought to be sincere and that many of our problems arise when politicians try to cover up their true meaning with cloudy phrases, jargon and untruths. As George Orwell put it in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Yet although Orwell’s quest for linguistic clarity is to be applauded, the problem of political language cannot be reduced to the idea that everything would be better if people simply said what they meant. Orwell himself expressed some of his most powerful ideas in the form of fiction – a deliberate departure from reality. This lecture will consider examples of when failing to “say what we mean” may be justifiable, and will ask what lessons we can draw for the improvement of contemporary political speech.


Richard Toye was born and studied in the UK, at the universities of Birmingham and Cambridge. He is currently Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He has written widely on British and international history in the period from the late nineteenth century to the present day, and he focuses, in particular, on political rhetoric. He appears regularly on TV and radio, and in 2007 he won the Times Higher Education magazine’s Young Academic Author of the Year Award for his book Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness. His most recent book is The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches.

Assigned Reading

Richard Toye, Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2013)


A reception will be held at 5:00 pm at the UNE Art Gallery


Center for Global Humanities


(207) 221-4435

Reflections on politics and the English language
6:00 PM
WCHP Lecture Hall in Parker Pavilion

Portland Campus

Free and open to the public