AskDefine | Define Orwellian

Dictionary Definition

Orwellian adj : of or relating to the works of George Orwell (especially his picture of a future totalitarian state)

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Pertaining to or resembling the works of George Orwell, especially in reference to the dystopia in Nineteen Eighty-Four
  2. Frightening and overcontrolled by a government that interferes in nearly every aspect of personal life


  • 1954 The Orwellian slogan that "War is Peace" was, consciously or unconsciously, from the beginning adopted by both conflicting groups within the U.N. - Sisley Huddleston - Popular Diplomacy and War

Extensive Definition

The adjective Orwellian describes the situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being unfavourable to the welfare of a free-society. It connotes an attitude and a policy of control by propaganda, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past, including the "unperson" — a person whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory, practiced by modern repressive governments. Often, this includes the circumstances depicted in his novels, particularly Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell's ideas about personal freedom and state authority developed when he was a British colonial administrator in Burma. He was fascinated by the effect of colonialism on the individual person, requiring acceptance of the idea that the colonialist oppressor exists only for the good of the oppressed person and people.


The adjective Orwellian refers to these behaviours of State and The Party, especially when the Party is the State:
  • The political manipulation of language, by obfuscation, e.g. WAR IS PEACE. Using language to obfuscate meaning or to reduce and eliminate ideas and their meanings that are deemed dangerous to its authority.
  • Invasion of personal privacy, either directly physically or indirectly by surveillance.
  • State control of its citizens' daily life, as in a "Big Brother" society.
  • Official encouragement of policies contributing to the socio-economic disintegration of the family.
  • The substitution of traditional religion with the adoration of state leaders and their Party.
  • The encouragement of "doublethink," whereby the population must learn to embrace inconsistent concepts without dissent, e.g. giving up liberty for freedom.
  • The revision of history in the favour of the State's interpretation of it.
  • A dystopian future.

Big Brother

The most common sense of Orwellian is that of the all-controlling "Big Brother" state, used to negatively describe a situation in which a Big Brother authority figure — in concert with "thought police" — constantly monitors the population to detect betrayal via "improper" thoughts. Orwellian also describes oppressive political ideas and the use of euphemistic political language in public discourse to camouflage morally outrageous ideas and actions. In this latter sense, the term is often used as a means of attacking an opponent in political debate, by branding his or her policies as Orwellian.

Political language

Orwell tried to promote the use of more precise language in political discourse, and he criticised political language popular at the time, such as "running-dog lackey" and "Fascist octopus," which he said prevented thought. It seems unlikely that Orwell would have approved of many of the uses to which his pseudonym is applied. The loose definition of the term and the often poor correlation between the real life situations people describe as Orwellian and his own dystopian fiction leave the use of the adjective at best inexact and frequently politically inaccurate. In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell derides the use of cliché and dying metaphors, which "even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent" and goes on to say "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."
In many of his essays and letters Orwell criticised words with formally precise definitions being used badly and the vague slide in meaning for many of these words. He was a fierce critic of Fascism but he would freely mock the promiscuous use of the word:


  1. Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel. London: Secker & Warburg. [9]
  2. Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. [10]
  3. Orwell, George (1977 (reissue)). 1984, Erich Fromm (Foreword), Signet Classics. ISBN 0451524934.
  4. Orwell, George (2003 (Centennial edition)). Nineteen Eighty-Four, Thomas Pynchon (Foreword); Erich Fromm (Afterword), Plume. ISBN 0452284236.
Orwellian in Danish: Orwellsk
Orwellian in Dutch: Orwelliaans
Orwellian in Swedish: Orwellska
Orwellian in Chinese: 歐威爾主義
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