"Orwellian" describes the situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free society. It connotes an attitude and a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past, including the "unperson" — a person whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory, practiced by modern repressive governments. Often, this includes the circumstances depicted in his novels, particularly Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell's ideas about personal freedom and state authority developed when he was a British colonial administrator in Burma. He was fascinated by the effect of colonialism on the individual, requiring acceptance of the idea that the colonialist oppressor exists only for the good of the oppressed person and people.

There has also been a great deal of discourse on the possibility that Orwell galvanized his ideas of oppression during his experience, and his subsequent writings in the English press, in Spain. Orwell was a member of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) militia and suffered suppression and escaped arrest by the Comintern faction working within the Republican Government. Following his escape he made a strong case for defending the Spanish revolution from the Communists there, and the mis-information in the press at home. During this period he formed strong ideas about the reportage of events, and their context in his own ideas of imperialism and democracy.

This often brought him into conflict with literary peers such as W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender.[1]



The adjective Orwellian refers to these behaviours of The Party, especially when the Party is the State:

  • Invasion of personal privacy, either directly physically or indirectly by surveillance.
  • State control of its citizens' daily life, as in a "Big Brother" society.
  • Official encouragement of policies contributing to the socio-economic disintegration of the family.
  • The adoration of state leaders and their Party.
  • The encouragement of "doublethink", whereby the population must learn to embrace inconsistent concepts without dissent, e.g. giving up liberty for freedom. Similar terms used, are "doublespeak", and "newspeak"
  • The revision of history in the favour of the State's interpretation of it.
  • A (generally) dystopian future.
  • The use of euphemism to describe an agency, program or other concept, especially when the name denotes the opposite of what is actually occurring. E.g. a department that wages war is called the "Ministry of Peace" or "Ministry of Defence".

Big Brother

The most common sense of Orwellian is that of the all-controlling "Big Brother" state, used to negatively describe a situation in which a Big Brother authority figure — in concert with "thought police" — constantly monitors the population to detect betrayal via "improper" thoughts. Orwellian also describes oppressive political ideas and the use of euphemistic political language in public discourse to camouflage morally outrageous ideas and actions. In this latter sense, the term is often used as a means of attacking an opponent in political debate, by branding his or her policies as Orwellian. When used like this in political rhetoric if it is not sincere, it is interesting to note as it can be a case of a hypocritical Orwellian strategist denouncing Orwellian strategies.

Political language

Orwell tried to promote the use of more precise language in political discourse, and he criticised political language popular at the time, such as "running-dog lackey" and "Fascist octopus," which he said prevented thought. It seems unlikely that Orwell would have approved of many of the uses to which his pseudonym is applied. The loose definition of the term and the often poor correlation between the real-life situations people describe as Orwellian and his own dystopian fiction leave the use of the adjective at best inexact and frequently politically inaccurate. In his essay "Politics and the English Language", Orwell derides the use of cliché and dying metaphors, which "even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent" and goes on to say "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

In many of his essays and letters Orwell criticised words with formally precise definitions being used badly and the vague slide in meaning for many of these words. He was a fierce critic of Fascism but he would freely mock the promiscuous use of the word:

It would seem that, as used, the word 'Fascism' is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, youth hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I don't know what else.[2]

See also


  1. ^ "I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender", 'Orwell in Spain' is the current compilation of Orwell's writings on Spain. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Orwell-Spain-Penguin-Modern-Classics/dp/0141185163
  2. ^ "As I Please", 24 March 1944, Tribune
  1. Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel. London: Secker & Warburg. [9]
  2. Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. [10]
  3. Orwell, George (1977 (reissue)). 1984, Erich Fromm (Foreword), Signet Classics. ISBN 0-451-52493-4.
  4. Orwell, George (2003 (Centennial edition)). Nineteen Eighty-Four, Thomas Pynchon (Foreword); Erich Fromm (Afterword), Plume. ISBN 0-452-28423-6.

External links

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  • Orwellian — 1950 (first attested in Mary McCarthy), from English author George Orwell (pseudonym of Eric Blair, 1903 1950), especially in reference to his novel Nineteen Eighty Four. Ironically, it has come to be used in reference to the totalitarian systems …   Etymology dictionary

  • Orwellian — ► ADJECTIVE ▪ relating to the work of the British novelist George Orwell (1903 50), especially the totalitarian state depicted in Nineteen Eighty four …   English terms dictionary

  • Orwellian — [ôr wel′ē ən] adj. of or like the society portrayed by Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty four, in which a totalitarian state exercises almost total control over the public and private activities of the citizens …   English World dictionary

  • Orwellian — adjective see Orwell …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Orwellian — /awr wel ee euhn/, adj. of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or resembling the literary work of George Orwell or the totalitarian future described in his antiutopian novel 1984 (1949). [1945 50; G. ORWELL + IAN] * * * …   Universalium

  • Orwellian — adjective a) Pertaining to or resembling the works of , especially in reference to the dystopia in b) Frightening and overcontrolled by a government that interferes in nearly every aspect of personal life …   Wiktionary

  • Orwellian — Or|well|i|an [ ɔr weliən ] adjective relating to a political system in which the government controls every aspect of people s lives …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • Orwellian — adj. pertaining to George Orwell; in the style of Orwell (especially mimicking the totalitarian rule in Orwell s novel 1984 ) …   English contemporary dictionary

  • Orwellian — adjective of or characteristic of the work of the British novelist George Orwell (1903–50), especially with reference to the totalitarian state as depicted in Nineteen Eighty four …   English new terms dictionary

  • orwellian — or·well·ian …   English syllables

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