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What does ‘Orwellian’ mean, anyway?

Leading Conservative Brexiteers, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, wrote recently to the UK prime minister, Theresa May, and – surprise, surprise – the text of the letter duly found its way into the hands of the press. It contained a set of demands on how to run Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in language that was described by an unnamed minister as “Orwellian”. For which, read: sinister. But what do we understand by the word – and how has its meaning changed over the years since George Orwell’s death in 1950?

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.

Think what you will of Johnson and Gove, but they are hardly representative of the dark forces at work in Orwell’s dystopian novel. The minister describing the letter seems to be watering down the adjective to mean something like a secretive and undemocratic influence of one faction over another within the government. This is certainly not the situation in Orwell’s novel in which The Party appears, on the surface at least, to be absolutely in control – something that could hardly be said of the prime minister at the moment.

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.

Newspeak, Doublespeak and thoughtcrime

It may be an exaggeration to describe the activities of some of our current cabinet ministers as Orwellian – nevertheless, there is a sense in which it might be accurate. The anonymous minister who commented on the letter also seemed to suggest that it was the language that was being used that was in some way Orwellian.

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.

Double act, double speak: Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Mary Turner/PA Wire/PA Image

In this context, thoughtcrime is the key concept that has to be avoided – it is not only objecting to The Party, but even thinking about objecting that is outlawed. As one of the characters involved in refining the new language explains:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

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.

In this vein, the leaked letter suggests that anti-Brexiteers in the Conservative party are in need of “clarifying their minds” – and one particularly Orwellian use of language explains: “If we are to counter those who wish to frustrate that end, there are ways of underlining your resolve.”

Orwellian, after the success of Nineteen Eighty-Four, has come to represent something sinister in politics. 1000 words via Shutterstock

This use of language to produce an unspecified threat is just the kind of thing that might have resonated with Orwell.

Politics and the English language

Perhaps one of the ironies of using writers’ names as adjectives is that they become saddled with the very things that they were warning us about. Dickensian, for example, has become synonymous with the worst aspects of a class-ridden Victorian society, while Kafkaesque refers to the dehumanising effects of the individual’s encounter with inflexible state bureaucracy.

Orwell’s name will forever be associated with totalitarianism and the manipulation of language in order to maintain state control. This is particularly ironic given that in an essay of 1946 – Politics and the English Language – he was keen to champion plain speaking in political discourse. His rules for writing contain pieces of advice that remain invaluable for all writers and public commentators. For example: “Never use a long word where a short one will do”, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”, and “Break any of these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous.”

I wonder if Johnson has a copy?

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