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.
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 Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.