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.

via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less

Villagers rejoice as they receive the first vaccines ever delivered via drone in the Congo

The area's topography makes transporting medicines a treacherous task.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

When we discuss barriers to healthcare in the developed world, affordability is commonly the biggest concern. But for some in the developing world, physical distance and topography can be the difference between life and death.

Widjifake, a hard-to-reach village in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a population of 6,500, struggles with having consistent access to healthcare supplies due to the Congo River and its winding tributaries.

It can take up to three hours for vehicles carrying supplies to reach the village.

Keep Reading Show less
via Keith Boykin / Twitter

Fox News and President Trump seem like they may be headed for a breakup. "Fox is a lot different than it used to be," Trump told reporters in August after one of the network's polls found him trailing for Democrats in the 2020 election.

"There's something going on at Fox, I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it," he continued.

Some Fox anchors have hit back at the president over his criticisms. "Well, first of all, Mr. President, we don't work for you," Neil Cavuto said on the air. "I don't work for you. My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you, just report on you."

Keep Reading Show less