What does ‘Orwellian’ mean, anyway?

Nick Bentley, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Keele University tries to answer the question.

Orwell’s career as a writer was long and productive – at one time or another he produced novels, journalism, memoirs, political philosophy, literary criticism and cultural commentary. But the term “Orwellian” most often relates to his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, completed a couple of years before his death. The novel presents a vision of a Britain taken over by a totalitarian regime in which the state exerts absolute power over its citizens.


Nineteen Eighty-Four presents a number of concepts and ideas that have worked their way into the contemporary imagination – and that, in so doing, have shifted somewhat from their original meanings. Big Brother, the all-seeing, all-knowing emblem of totalitarian control, and Room 101, the regime’s torture chamber, for example, are concepts that have developed a life of their own beyond Orwell’s original ideas.

Other concepts, such as the telescreen, doublethink, thoughtcrime, the Two-Minute Hate, memory holes and Newspeak are all introduced in Orwell’s novel to represent the ways in which technology can be marshalled by the state to control its citizens. It is this aspect of absolute state control that is most often conjured up when hearing the term Orwellian.

Of all the so called Orwellian ideas to caution against State supremacy, the newspeak is highly relevant today:

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the projects the totalitarian state is undertaking is to create a new language: Newspeak. This involves the simplification and purification of the English language to the extent that it functions purely as a means of maintaining state power and control.

Newspeak is all about the simplification of language, paring it back to its bare bones in order to reduce it to pure function. So, for example, the Ministry of Truth and the Ministry of Love become Minitrue and Miniluv in Newspeak. One can’t help thinking of all the complexities of Britain leaving the European Union that are shoehorned into the term Brexit.

Another aspect of this manipulation of language is the concept of doublespeak, whereby words are used to mask their real meaning, and in fact refer to their exact opposites. So, for example, the Ministry of Plenty deals with food shortages and The Ministry of Love is where The Party uses violence and torture to extract confessions. Think of our own Ministry for Work and Pensions, which spends a good proportion of its time dealing with unemployment and the erosion of pension rights. Or terms like “streamlining” and “increasing productivity” – which usually equate to making people redundant.

Hmm.. You see this manipulation all the time.

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