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The Rampant Misuse of "Orwellian"

Nightmare or fantasy? A look at the often used (and often misused) insult.

A recurring theme of this column is that language is a giant organic beast, with thousands of tentacles and no sense of right and wrong. Nowhere is the amorality of language more clear than in the realm of eponyms, those words that turn a name into a new term, often in ways the bearer of the name would despise.

The best example might be “Orwellian”—an adjective that has likely made George Orwell spin in his grave repeatedly, ever since his name started being used as a synonym for the totalitarian doublethink he attacked in 1984. Recent uses of “Orwellian” seem to expand the term even further, as it joins “socialist” as a common weapon used by right wingers against all things Obama. Without a doubt, “Orwellian” is one of our most commonly and controversially used words.

Though Orwell was a prolific writer—you should really check out his essays—it’s the dystopian novels 1984 and Animal Farm that form the popular sense of “Orwellian.” The Oxford English Dictionary started finding examples of its use as early as 1950, one year after 1984 debuted. The OED also collects other meanings for the word, including “an admirer of the works and ideas of Orwell,” but that more flattering use didn’t show up until 1971, and the bulk of recent uses mean doublethink-y, newspeak-esque, and Big Brother-ish. It’s as if we called criminal scum “Batmanistic” because Batman is so effective in beating them senseless.

Though “Orwellian” is almost always a negative term, the targets vary. Often, it’s about language: Legislation like the "Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010” and disturbing euphemisms like "sudden in-custody death syndrome” get the Orwellian label. Writers make reference to “an Orwellian global corporate state” and the GPS-like Facebook feature “Places” is described as being “so Orwellian as to surpass even what Orwell imagined...” Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about a new weapon is called “exactly the kind of Orwellian doublethink that characterized the Bush administration.” Even the “end” of the Iraq war gets the Orwellian treatment, as Salon’s Hannah Gurman writes that the author "could not have invented a more Orwellian tale than the actual story of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.”

In particular, the recent “Ground Zero Mosque” hubbub has been the cause of many accusations of Orwellianism, as seen in stories like “MSNBC Masking the Mosque: Muslim 'Scholars' aka Stealth Jihadists, an Orwellian Freak Show” and “Associated (Orwellian) Press.” These stories equate the recent AP stand against saying “Ground Zero mosque” (because the potential mosque/Islamic cultural center would not actually be located at Ground Zero, just near it) with the Nazi-inspired totalitarian villains of Orwell’s books. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that is a stretch.

What “Orwellian” has become, primarily, is a weapon. It dresses up “You’re a liar!” in intellectual clothes that make the liar sound like a fascist. A few months ago, Darryl Campbell wrote a terrific piece in The Millions on such misuse of Orwell’s name, noting that “... many readers simply find it easier to shout down any opposite political position with Orwell’s own words—Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others—than to really understand what these words, in context, were supposed to represent." In GOOD’s own pages, Patrick James had problems with “...the assertion that there's a right and wrong way to read an author,” saying that “The misinterpretation of Orwell is less about his obsolescence than it is an indicator of something complex finding a large audience.”

While I do think there is something sketchy about the many cries of Orwellianism, I believe there are three things that can be done about it: zip, nada, and diddly. Outrage at the watering down of “Orwellian” is not that different from other language peeves. For example, some folks cling to what was once the established meaning of “nauseous,” insisting that it can only mean something that causes the queasies. These quirky hardliners say it should never be used to describe a person who feels funny in the tummy, even though that sense has been common since the late 1800s, which hardly qualifies it as newfangled. More recently, look how this Jersey Shore doofus has basically ruined the word “situation,” or at least basted it with a mimbo-ish flavor. That’s the worst case of word abuse since Dubya ruined “Mission accomplished,” but these things happen.

Language change may make us nauseous, but complaining about it is as useless as a chimpanzee pundit saying chimps aren’t pant-hooting the way they used to, and that chimps these days don’t even know a pant from a hoot. Language evolves, and even the name of a great author isn’t safe.

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