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What Does “Orwellian” Mean?

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Are you curious about who George Orwell is and what “Orwellian” means? This blog post will go over both, so you can decide for yourself if the world around you is Orwellian or not.

White text over gray background reads "What Does Orwellian Mean?"
The word “Orwellian” is derived from the name of a famous English writer.
“Orwellian”: Quick Summary

Orwellian is an adjective that describes aspects of society reminiscent of George Orwell’s critiques. It encompasses elements that erode personal freedoms, such as mass surveillance and restrictions on free speech.

Look around you. How is the state of the world? Are liberties increasing? Or is it the opposite—rights being curtailed, surveillance heightened, and disinformation spread? If it’s the latter, you can describe it as Orwellian.

Are you not sure what that means? That’s what we’re here for.

Below, we’ll teach you what Orwellian means, provide examples, and even throw in a brief history lesson about the man behind this adjective: George Orwell.

Who Is George Orwell?

George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair, was an English novelist, essayist, and critic. Orwell wrote non-fiction books and essays, but he is best known for his novels, in which he criticizes totalitarianism and the diminishing freedoms and propaganda that go hand in hand with it. He witnessed several major political and societal conflicts throughout his life, which served as profound influences on much of his literary works.

What Is “Totalitarianism”?

Totalitarianism is a type of government led by a single leader, often a dictator, who oppresses the populace and requires total obedience and compliance with the state.

Examples of totalitarian governments include Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Animal Farm, for example, is a satirical and allegorical (or symbolic) tale that reflects the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism. Orwell used animals on a farm, who rebelled against their human farmer, to represent various political figures and social dynamics. Intending to create a freer and just society, the animals ended up living in a world that was equally, if not more, unjust as the one they had just overthrown.

Image shows quote from George Orwell's Animal Farm.
“Animal Farm” was published in 1945.

Additionally, Nineteen Eighty-Four is another well-known novel about a dystopian, totalitarian society ruled by the state (famously known as “Big Brother”), where a range of tactics were employed to control citizens by suppressing their individuality and freedom of thought.

Text shows quote from George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four."
Nineteen Eighty-four was published in 1949.

Knowing this, we can begin to understand what Orwellian means.

“Orwellian” Meaning

Orwellian is an adjective that describes something similar to or relating to elements found in Orwell’s writings. In simple terms, things that are labeled as Orwellian are detrimental to the rights and freedoms of individuals in a free society. This encompasses things like mass surveillance, propaganda, rewriting history, the suppression of free speech and independent thought as well as forced sterilization and medical experimentation.

As I installed security cameras in the garage, my brother claimed we were living in an Orwellian household, and I told him he was being nothing short of dramatic.
At school, I was learning about China’s social credit system, and then a discussion ensued on whether it truly had Orwellian traits, or not.
My father escaped Cuba when he was 25 years old, so we often hear horror stories of the Orwellian world he lived in.

Chances are that you wouldn’t want to live in any place that could be deemed Orwellian.

“Orwellian” Examples

Here are some general examples of things that can be considered Orwellian.

Indoctrinating students—that is, forcing students to believe something without allowing them to question or even learn about alternatives
Having the government get access to the data found on your phone and computers, unbeknownst to you
Censoring in any way and on any scale, especially in a country that grants these rights to every citizen
Banning and burning books simply because the government doesn’t like what’s written in them
Digital currency tied to a government that can be controlled, manipulated, and even abruptly shut down
Rewriting history to better fit a government’s goal
An agency that tracks the behavior of users online and gives them a score that affects their everyday lives, like buying a house or opening a bank account
Not being allowed to follow a religion or only being allowed to view a leader as a God
The erasure or manipulation of facts to get people to believe something
Remember to Capitalize the “O” in Orwellian.”

Remember that the word Orwellian originates from the proper noun: (George) Orwell. Therefore, the “O” must always be capitalized.

  • We were having a discussion about whether the United States government has developed any orwellian tendencies.
  • We were having a discussion about whether the United States government has developed any Orwellian tendencies.

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