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

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:

George Orwell Explains in a Reveal­ing 1944 Let­ter Why He’d Write 1984

Hux­ley to Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

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 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 (12)
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  • Julio Eduardo Caro says:

    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.

  • Lee Hamilton says:

    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.

  • Leonardo Terzo says:

    It means distopic, the oppo­site of utopic.

  • Sean says:


  • yo says:

    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.

  • CARGOsin47x says:

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

  • Ryan says:

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

  • Toula says:

    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?

  • monkeys says:

    stu­pid site!!!!!!!

  • monkeys says:


  • Bruce A. Frank says:

    A word that is con­stant­ly incor­rect­ly used quick­ly los­es its use­ful­ness!

  • monkey trainer says:

    It think mon­key need to go back to train­er to learn more then naughty words like that

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