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Orwellian

Louis Menand had a typically intelligent review of George Orwell — man, writer, and literary figure — in the New Yorker last week, which was good to read because the guy's words (and his name itself, which of course he invented, too) really do get twisted to suit the purposes of all too many writers, unfairly to both their readers, their subjects, and Orwell himself.

In fact, the term Orwellian is almost as badly abused as Orwell's own Big Brother or doublethink, I think. It's the term of choice to describe any form of government that scares a writer, it seems (a Google News search for the term brings up some 175 hits today). But what does the term actually communicate? It has powerful associations (of control, mostly, I think), but isn't ever meant literally (unless some government somewhere has a Room 101 I don't know about, for example). It's a vague, nonspecific condemnation, but of the highest degree; it is empty of information and flush with rhetoric.

In other words, the term itself tells you almost nothing about whatever it's being used to describe — it's designed to make you feel a certain way about it — to control your feelings, even — without helping you understand why. It's exactly the sort of thing Orwell himself didn't do in his writing, but it's kind of Orwellian, all the same, couldn't you say?

Well, I hope not. But that wouldn't stop some people.

January 27, 2003 7:05 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

Word Orthodoxy, like Grammar Orthodoxy, has little place in modern language -- or society.

We live in a world of evolving words, and meanings. This is because we, unlike people even 30 years ago, live in a civilization which changes and reconstructs at such a hight rate. Words, and their intended meanings, will change likewise, of course, regardless of cozy, lazy need for a static world.

To lament the loss, reduction, or alteration of a word's or phrase's original meaning is to merely ignore the changes that are taking place and, more to my point, our need to describe them amongst ourselves. That whole language thing is still necessary.

If we were to be so rigid, we'd need to construct new words (or continuously compose elaborate phrases) to describe this increasingly newer world. Instead, we like to recycle, lobbing off those elements of a definition which no longer meet our needs. Round up the Victorians and ship 'em out.

I know what they mean by Orwellian, and so does everyone else, even you; Rigid readers need only be confused, and appropriately left behind.

.non-rigid rob

Posted by rob adams on January 28, 2003 10:56 AM

Word Orthodoxy, like Grammar Orthodoxy, has little place in modern language -- or society.

We live in a world of evolving words, and meanings. This is because we, unlike people even 30 years ago, live in a civilization which changes and reconstructs at such a hight rate. Words, and their intended meanings, will change likewise, of course, regardless of cozy, lazy need for a static world.

I don't think this has anything to do with anything I said. I'm saying a word is being misused. I didn't say there is no acceptable metaphorical or evolvling use of the word in question, or of any other word, for that matter. How does it follow from what I actually said here that I think words must only be used literally, according to their original definitions?

I'm not objecting to a word's having a new use, I'm objecting to the new use a particular word is being put to — in particular, the ugly (and ironic) rhetorical device that it has become.

Posted by M on January 28, 2003 12:36 PM

non-rigid rob

Dude. Click here for help with that.

Posted by Senn on January 29, 2003 9:12 AM


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