George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the language of dystopia
George Orwell, who was born on the 25th of June, 1903, has never really fallen out favour with the reading public, but all the same his work is enjoying renewed interest at the moment. This is hardly surprising when you consider the adjective to which he lent his name: ‘Orwellian’, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘Characteristic or suggestive of the writings of George Orwell, esp. of the totalitarian state depicted in his dystopian account of the future, Nineteen Eighty-four’. It’s the dystopian part that feels so current – according to a recent New Yorker article, we are living through ‘A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction’, with new novels appearing frequently that express concern about our future. There are many factors contributing to the current public appetite for dystopian stories, including climate change and major political uncertainties (Google searches for the word ‘dystopia’ spiked on the 20th of January, 2017 – the date of the most recent presidential inauguration). In honour of Orwell and the legacy of his dystopian thought, let’s take a look at some of his unique contributions to the English language.
It’s well known that many of the concepts found in Nineteen Eighty-Four have entered into popular culture, with Orwellian origins behind the titles of such TV shows as Room 101 and Big Brother. ‘Big Brother’, used to signify ‘a person, state, etc., resembling an elder brother’, has been around since the nineteenth century, but Orwell is credited with a specific use of the term: ‘A political or administrative authority, esp. the State, exercising strict supervision of and total control over people’s lives’. A government that takes ‘total’ control over its people is a ‘totalitarian’ state. Orwell, who was writing at a time when Hitler and Stalin represented totalitarianism on the political right and left alike, famously declared of his own writing that ‘every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism’.
This totalitarian control in Nineteen Eighty-Four in part depends upon the concept of ‘doublethink’, a word first used by Orwell to describe the capacity to believe two conflicting pieces of information at once. Here’s the description of doublethink from the novel:
‘To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy’.
‘Doublethink’ is a ubiquitous term in journalism today, as a way of criticising political misinformation – think of current conversations about ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. A related word of Orwell’s is ‘unperson’; according to the OED, this is ‘a person who, usually for a political misdemeanour, is deemed not to have existed and whose name is removed from all public records’. It also has taken on more general use, to signify when a person’s achievements are officially disregarded or denied. The idea of an ‘unperson’ thus relates to doublethink as it requires the denial of a certain aspect of reality – you become an unperson when it is convenient for the people in power to forget about you.
Orwell is currently listed as lead example for the derogative adjective‘prole’, a shortening of ‘proletarian’ which refers to any member of the working class. It’s unlikely Orwell appears to be the first to use the adjective in this way – however, the noun ‘prole’ can be traced back to 1887, and ‘proletarian’ itself is a key term in Marxist philosophy (he also, fittingly, provides the first example for the verb ‘Marxize’, ‘to form or adapt in accordance with Marxist theories’). However, Orwell certainly helped popularize the word; he uses it ironically to talk about the demonization of the working class, in a manner that could be compared to the troubling word ‘chav’ today – for Orwell, ‘prole’ represents snobbery and political elitism.
Other words credited to Orwell relate to the ways in which a totalitarian state might control its citizens. These include words about words: ‘Newspeak’ was Orwell’s term for a government-controlled language, one with strict limits and rules on vocabulary and syntax. Orwell’s idea was that freedom of thought and freedom of expression depend upon a rich and wide-ranging language; to control thought, you might start by trying to control language. Therefore, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there is a ‘Dictionary of Newspeak’ established to reduce language to its bare minimum – ‘doubleplusgood’ replaces ‘excellent’ and its synonyms, ‘uncold’ replaces warm. Orwell originally expressed these concerns in the 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, in which he outlined rules for good writing; famously, his last rule reads ‘Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous’.
Orwell’s ‘newspeak’ gets right to the core of two conflicting theories about what dictionaries are supposed to be doing. The OED aims to follow behind the development of language, to collect information and describe the way people use words – the descriptivist position. The Dictionary of Newspeak pushes the opposite ideas – prescriptivism – to its limits, by representing a constructed and ‘prescribed’ language that aims to condition how people think and write. Orwell was aware that even language-use, and the compiling of dictionaries, had real political ramification. It befits his own unrestrictive views of language that he, somewhat ironically, coined several words to describe the deletion of language in Nineteen Eighty-Four: Newspeak, Oldspeak – for traditional, open language – and the general suffix ‘-speak’.
The astonishing thing about Orwell’s writings, especially Nineteen Eighty-Four, is that they have so far seemed only to grow more relevant with age. He wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, which features citizens who are monitored by their ever-watching TV screens, at the beginning of the ‘Golden Age of Television’ in the 1940s – but he couldn’t have guessed how western society would adapt to includes screens in its daily life. What’s more, CCTV, the Internet, and invasive mobile apps really have engendered serious concerns over privacy. Orwell’s warnings against power-hungry rulers are timeless, but his specific comments on the tactics of totalitarianism seem more and more prescient; he was right that even truth could be up for grabs in the political world, and misinformation and the constant threat of attack from outsiders could strengthen the state’s grasp of power. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Next time someone reminds you that Orwell invented ‘Big Brother’, you could respond that he also cited for the word ‘Mackintoshy’, as found in the OED – to describe the smell of a wet overcoat.