George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal, India (1903). He didn’t care for his birth name; he found “Eric” too Norse and “Blair” too Scottish. When he began writing in earnest, he adopted what he felt was a solidly English name; his surname comes from the River Orwell in East Anglia.
His father was a British civil servant, and the family was, in Orwell’s words, “upper lower middle class”; nevertheless, the boy went to several exclusive boarding schools, including Eton, on a scholarship. He didn’t enjoy the experience, feeling alienated from his well-to-do classmates, and chose not to go on to Oxford or Cambridge.
He became a military policeman instead, serving in Burma, where he came to hate imperialism, totalitarianism, and the class system. He returned to England a literary and political rebel. He called himself an anarchist for many years, and later a socialist who was nonetheless critical of the existing socialist movement.
He’s most famous for his anti-communist and dystopian novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), but he was also a master of literary nonfiction, using deceptively straightforward prose to describe moments of personal insight. His 1931 essay “A Hanging” describes his role in the execution of a prisoner in Burma:
Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) was a retelling of time he spent among the poor in England and Europe; The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) was both a pro- and anti-socialist look at unemployed miners in the north of England. His posthumously published essay “Such, Such Were the Joys …” (1952) recalled his boarding school days and the classism he encountered there.
He also wrote an essay decrying the abuse of language by politicians and the media, called “Politics and the English Language” (1946). In it, he includes five rules for effective written communication:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(v) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.