ON George Orwell’s centenary — he was born on June 25, 1903 — the most telling sign of his influence is the words he left us with: not just ”thought police,” ”doublethink” and ”unperson,” but also ”Orwellian” itself, the most widely used adjective derived from the name of a modern writer.

In the press and on the Internet, it’s more common than ”Kafkaesque,” ”Hemingwayesque” and ”Dickensian” put together. It even noses out the rival political reproach ”Machiavellian,” which had a 500-year head start.

Eponyms are always the narrowest sort of tribute, though. ”Orwellian” doesn’t have anything to do with Orwell as a socialist thinker, or for that matter, as a human being. People are always talking about Orwell’s decency, but ”Orwellian decency” would be an odd phrase indeed. And the adjective commemorates Orwell the writer only for three of his best known works: the novels ”Animal Farm” and ”1984” and the essay ”Politics and the English Language.”

”Orwellian” reduces Orwell’s palette to a single shade of noir. It brings to mind only sordid regimes of surveillance and thought control and the distortions of language that make them possible.

Orwell’s views on language may outlive his political ideas. At least they seem to require no updating or apology, whereas his partisans feel the need to justify the continuing relevance of his politics. He wasn’t the first writer to condemn political euphemisms. Edmund Burke was making the same points 150 years earlier about the language used by apologists for the French Revolution: ”Things are never called by their common names. Massacre is sometimes agitation, sometimes effervescence, sometimes excess.”

But Orwell is the writer most responsible for diffusing the modern view of political language as an active accomplice of tyranny. As he wrote in ”Politics and the English Language,” ”Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

That was an appealing notion to an age that had learned to be suspicious of ideologies, and critics on all sides have found it useful to cite ”Politics and the English Language” in condemning the equivocations of their opponents.

From “Simpler Terms; If It’s ‘Orwellian,’ It’s Probably Not,” by Geoffrey Nunberg,  June 22, 2003




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