Words in the News

Orwell and the English Language

Written by Stan Carey

Few writers have had such an influence on English language or literature that their name has become a byword for some quality of their work. These eponyms include Dickensian, Kafkaesque, Machiavellian, and Orwellian. It’s an opportune time to consider this last one.

Orwell was originally Eric Arthur Blair. He took his pen name, by which we know him today, from the River Orwell in England. Orwellian generally refers to a particular book of his: Nineteen Eighty-Four, also styled as 1984, a dystopian vision of a totalitarian future. It was published 70 years ago this month, on 8 June 1949. Other literary dystopias from the era, such as Huxley’s Brave New World and Zamyatin’s We, have not had anything like the linguistic legacy of 1984.

That legacy includes compound words and phrases that are now seen sometimes in general usage, among them newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, doubleplusgood (‘excellent’), and doubleplusungood (‘terrible’). The familiar phrases Big Brother and Room 101, as well as entering the common vocabulary, have also become the names of popular TV shows. Other terms, such as thought police, were not invented by Orwell but were popularized by his book.

Newspeak is of enduring interest. A basic and artificial form of English, with distinctive patterns of grammar, it was used as propaganda by the novel’s authoritarian rulers, who sought to limit the thoughts and actions of the people. If words like democracy were excluded, then actual democracy would be prevented – or so the thinking went. Newspeak also had the slogans War is peace, Freedom is slavery, and Ignorance is strength. These paradoxes embody doublethink: being able to hold contradictory or conflicting ideas simultaneously.

In modern English, newspeak can refer more broadly to ‘language that sounds impressive but deliberately hides the truth and tries to change people’s traditional views about something’. When politicians use euphemisms and weasel words like ‘friendly fire’, or when corporations use misleading phrases like ‘rightsizing’, they may be accused of newspeak or doublespeak – a blend of doublethink and newspeak that points to hypocrisy or double standards.

Orwell’s influence on the language is not limited to lending it vocabulary. Around the same time that 1984 was published – the 1940s – he wrote the essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, which remains a popular source of guidance on writing. It should, however, be read with caution – right from the first line, it is steeped in declinism that does not reflect the true, doubleplusgood state of the language.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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