What “Orwellian” Really Means: An Animated Lesson About the Use & Abuse of the Term

in English Language, Literature | October 5th, 2015

In all of our minds, the word “Orwellian” conjures up a certain kind of setting: a vast, fixed bureaucracy; a dead-eyed public forced into gray, uniform living conditions; the very words we use mangled in order to better serve the interests of power. We think, on the whole, of the kind of bleakness with which George Orwell saturated the future England that provides the setting for his famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Almost seventy years after that book’s publication, we now use “Orwellian” to describe the views of the political party opposite us, the Department of Motor Vehicles — anything, in short, that strikes us as brutish, monolithic, implacable, deliberately stripped of meaning, or in any way authoritarian.

We use the word so much, in fact, that it can’t help but have come detached from its original meaning. “I can tell you that we live in Orwellian times,” writes the Guardian‘s Sam Jordison. Or that “America is waging Orwellian wars, that TV is Orwellian, that the police are Orwellian, that Amazon is Orwellian, that publishers are Orwellian too, that Amazon withdrew copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was Orwellian (although Orwell wouldn’t like it), that Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush, David Cameron, Ed Milliband, Kim Jong-un and all his relatives are Orwellian, that the TV programme Big Brother is both Orwellian and not as Orwellian as it claims to be, that Obama engages in Obamathink, that climate-change deniers and climate change scientists are Orwellian, that neoclassical economics employs Orwellian language. That, in fact, everything is Orwellian,” Jordison continues.

Here to restore sense to our usage of the most common word derived from the name of a writer, we have the Ted-Ed video at the top of the post. In it, and in the associated lesson on Ted-Ed’s site, Noah Tavlin breaks down the term’s meaning, its origin, the failings of our modern interpretation of it, and how truly Orwellian phenomena continue to invade our daily life without our even realizing it. “The next time you hear someone say ‘Orwellian,'” says Tavlin, “pay close attention. If they’re talking about the deceptive and manipulative use of language, they’re on the right track. If they’re talking about mass surveillance and intrusive government, they’re describing something authoritarian, but not necessarily Orwellian. And if they use it as an all-purpose word for any ideas they dislike, it’s possible that their statements are more Orwellian than whatever it is they’re criticizing” — an outcome Orwell himself might well have foreseen.

Related Content:

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George Orwell and Douglas Adams Explain How to Make a Proper Cup of Tea

For 95 Minutes, the BBC Brings George Orwell to Life

George Orwell’s 1984: Free eBook, Audio Book & Study Resources

George Orwell’s Five Greatest Essays (as Selected by Pulitzer-Prize Winning Columnist Michael Hiltzik)

Colin Marshall writes elsewhere on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (10)

  1. Julio Eduardo Caro says . . .
    October 5, 2015 / 4:48 pm

    It is certain that all we abuse of the word Orwellian but I think that its real meaning is about how the governments distort the reality and how they use and abuse of the information. In some countries it is evident. In Argentine for instance (I am from here) the president usually adress to the people during long time (more than an hour) and she is able of recite false figures and quantities and in that way she makes a kind of brain washing as we can read in 1984 from the Big Brother. I guess the same hapens in other countries.
    For me the orwellian connotations is linked with this aspect. The way the governments lie to the people. I think in every country there is a “Inner circle”, the staff of politicians in power. It is not so evident as in 1984 but it exists. There are also many examples of “double think” but unfortunatly people don’t realize.

  2. Lee Hamilton says . . .
    October 5, 2015 / 7:15 pm

    Your essay overlooks Orwell’s ” Politics & the English Language” where he observes that “fascism” has become a meaningless term due to imprecise overuse. The same issue you identify. But Orwell (Blair) deserves the credit.

  3. Leonardo Terzo says . . .
    October 6, 2015 / 5:31 pm

    It means distopic, the opposite of utopic.

  4. Sean says . . .
    October 7, 2015 / 8:08 am


  5. yo says . . .
    December 19, 2015 / 9:17 pm

    This very article is Orwellian, trying to tell people they are using the wrong words is like double speak. Why not just let them use the wrong words? Free speech right? But no you just have to dictate what is what for everyone, with no room for ambiguity, jokes, and just non serious remarks.

  6. CARGOsin47x says . . .
    January 15, 2016 / 1:11 am

    There is no alternative/different definition for the term “orwellian”. There is only one definition for “orwellian.”

  7. Ryan says . . .
    January 31, 2016 / 8:29 pm

    This video absolutely nailed it. Read 1984. This video is spot on.

  8. Toula says . . .
    April 8, 2016 / 5:55 am

    And speaking of Orwellian I have been lately haunted by the likeness of Oswell’s Animal Farm and how much it resembles the state of our Political Campaigns , especially one of them today!

    Has any one else thought of it?

  9. monkeys says . . .
    August 23, 2016 / 1:28 pm

    stupid site!!!!!!!

  10. monkeys says . . .
    August 23, 2016 / 1:28 pm


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