The Orwellian Misuse of “Orwellian”

TrumpSpeak sends the word’s original meanings down the memory hole.

A theme I return to now and then is how the Right takes a word that has been effectively used against it and breaks that word through repeated misuse. I’m not sure when this practice began. Probably it had already been going on for some while before I noticed it; I was reading Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, a 2008 book whose apparent purpose is to destroy any notion a reader might have of real fascism. (Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian? Take that, liberals!)

Word-breaking doesn’t always work — the Bush administration and its apologists never did completely break the word “torture” — but far too often it does. One of the great recent successes of conservative word-breaking is “fake news“, a once-useful term that originally referred to serious-looking links invented to be social-media clickbait and attributed to websites that purported to be newspaper sites, but weren’t. (For example, there is no Denver Guardian.)

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was a major beneficiary of viral fake news, like the Denver Guardian’s “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment murder-suicide” which was shared on Facebook more than half a million times, in spite of being a complete fiction that had been reported by no actual news organizations. Promoting fake news was, in fact, one of the primary ways Russia supported Trump. Obviously, this wasn’t something Trump wanted people to talk about, or even think about. Something had to be done.

So by repeated misuse, Trump captured “fake news” and redirected it to refer to accurate news stories he didn’t like. As a result, “the fake-news media” no longer brings the Denver Guardian to mind. Instead, it now encompasses The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN.

Today, if you use “fake news” in its original sense, no one will know what you mean. Mission accomplished.

We’re currently witnessing a multi-year campaign to break “socialism“, a word George Orwell sometimes used to describe his own political philosophy. But in a world where Joe Biden and Jon Ossoff are “radical socialists”, how can you even start a conversation about public ownership of the means of production? Such a thoughtcrime is not yet impossible, but it is becoming increasingly difficult.

“Religious freedom” and “religious liberty” are likewise broken. Now they primarily refer to Christian privilege. So Christians can ignore anti-discrimination laws because they have “religious liberty”. Meanwhile, the rest of us only have “religious liberty” in situations where conservative Christians agree with us. For example: A Christian pharmacist’s “religious liberty” is violated if he has to fill a birth-control prescription, and so a pharmacist of some other religion might claim a similar privilege. On the other hand, a Hindu waitress who doesn’t want to serve steaks should just find another job; firing her would not create any kind of religious-liberty issue.

But the latest word the Trump and his allies are trying to break is particularly ironic: “orwellian”. Vox explains:

When Josh Hawley and Trump Jr. use the term “Orwellian,” they are indulging in precisely the kind of lazy and dishonest obfuscation Orwell railed against. They are taking the haze of imprecise associations that have accumulated around the word — bad, dystopian, someone somewhere overreaching probably? — and trying to attach them to such urgent issues for human rights as a politician losing his book contract after a scandal and the most powerful man in the world getting kicked off a social media platform. They are, to put it in terms of which Orwell would approve, lying. They are pretending that very reasonable actions from private corporations are the same as the government kidnapping citizens and shoving their faces into cages full of rats to brainwash them. And they are trying to convince their followers to pretend the same thing, until the pretense becomes real and everyone agrees to believe the lie. [links added]

Originally, “orwellian” had a variety of related meanings, all of which derived directly from George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. The word might, for example, refer to a bold lie that completely inverts the truth, like the 1984 party slogans: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”

Rudy Giuliani’s statement “Truth isn’t truth” — which supposedly explained how an honest man like Trump might commit perjury if he testified under oath — is orwellian in this sense. But so is Trump’s claim that Democrats are stealing the 2020 election, because that claim is itself the center of Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election. The related lie that Democratic “election fraud” centered in majority-Black cities like Detroit, Atlanta, and Milwaukee is similarly orwellian, because inner-city Blacks are precisely the people most likely to be disenfranchised by Republican tactics like gerrymandering and voter suppression.

“Orwellian” might also legitimately refer to an authority’s demand that you believe what you are told rather than what you can see for yourself. That usage derives from this 1984 quote:

The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.

So Trump was being orwellian when he told a VFW convention: “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

But probably the purest meaning of “orwellian” would apply to the process I’m describing here: breaking a word so that the idea it once captured so well becomes inexpressible. As Orwell wrote in “The Principles of Newspeak“:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

If Trump and his allies succeed in breaking “orwellian”, they will have gone a long way towards removing this thought from the public mind. Then “orwellian” will have lost all substantive content, and will simply become a way to cast shade: “You said something I don’t like.”

And we will have lost any term that expresses what just happened.

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  • Rick  On January 18, 2021 at 9:59 am

    I’m left with a sense of breathless anticipation as to what the “right” comes up with next. I see the greatest problem being the fracture of the very concept of truth, as if there is no objective truth at all. When “alternative facts” are even allowed credibility, when there can be no agreement that there is truth and there is error, that’s when we’ve stepped through the looking glass and we’re left running as fast as we can simply to stay in place. What a world!

    • weeklysift  On January 27, 2021 at 6:09 am

      One of the strangest things is that for decades, Evangelicals and their sympathizers negatively labelled non-believers and advocates of liberal religion as “relativists” — because we didn’t believe in a God whose vision established an absolutely objective point of view. But now they have joined a right-wing movement that is far more relativistic than the Left ever was.

  • mikelabonte  On January 18, 2021 at 10:01 am

    George Lakoff traces the history of this Machiavellian war waged by linguists to 1970:

    Another broken word is “conservative”. Sure, try to get 10 “conservatives” to have a deep discussion on what that means, and agree on anything except “at least we’re not liberals”.

    “I enjoy talking to you. Your mind appeals to me. It resembles my own mind except that you happen to be insane.”― George Orwell

  • Nancy Rubinstein  On January 18, 2021 at 10:20 am

    Hawley undoubtedly knows exactly what he did. All of us certainly did. Thanks for the fascinating essay.

  • jmagoun  On January 18, 2021 at 11:18 am

    Thanks for this week’s piece. Both the problem of the filibuster and the twisting of words like ‘socialism’ and ‘orwellian’ have been on my mind for some time, for the reasons you’ve laid out.

  • Jean Saindon  On January 18, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    I suggest that “free speech” and freedom of speech” are also broken. The right, including some academics, have twisted the terms, so that the left is against “free speech” (reasoned discourse and the demand for argument and evidence) and the right is for it (the right to utter blatant falsehoods, distort the evidence and refuse to be held accountable for their claims (I use left and right to identify the most frequent violators; of course sometimes this is reversed); and any attempt to hold them accountable has been met with the response that their right to free speech is being suppressed). Academically, I found this in the IQ – race debates in the 1990s.

    While some of this is, perhaps, due to ignorance (sometimes willful), some of it is strategic. It is used to claim legitimacy for one’s position and deny it to the opposition by employing an old rhetorical move of taking a term with (usually) positive connotations (truth, religious freedom) and using it to defend its opposite and / or to limit its application to one side and deny it to the other. (One can also use terms with negative connotation for an audience – “socialism” — and apply them uncritically to any position one opposes, as the cartoon illustrates.) I suggest that a host of other terms, as used by the alt-right and their enablers, are also being systematically corrupted: “liberty”, “freedom”, “tyranny”. There seems to be a tendency on the alt-right to use terms primarily for their emotional connotation and not for their substantive meaning.

    • weeklysift  On January 27, 2021 at 6:03 am

      “There seems to be a tendency on the alt-right to use terms primarily for their emotional connotation and not for their substantive meaning.”

      That’s a really good observation. I may steal it.

  • mofretwell  On January 18, 2021 at 7:34 pm

    In trying to understand what has changed over the past 20 years, I keep coming back to the conviction that most people don’t decide what their convictions are, they are propagandized into their convictions. Most Christians didn’t feel persecuted by liberals. But once the propaganda machine started churning out that idea they started being convinced it was true. If this is true, we have been living in an Orwellian nation for some time — using the original meaning of the term.

    • weeklysift  On January 27, 2021 at 6:02 am

      I wonder how many people really believe that Trump made it OK to say “Merry Christmas” again.

  • Francis  On January 19, 2021 at 2:12 pm

    “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

    You’re equating “the evidence of your eyes and ears” with the information to which the legacy media chooses to expose you and with the opinions of opiners who are oriented leftward. That’s absurd and dishonest and hypocritical, but it’s not surprising that you’d say it.

    Trump might be full of sh*t a great deal of the time, but not always, and what you’re doing is worse. “Trump and his allies” don’t have the means to break language in the ways you say. The left owns all that space and means, and has for some time. That Trump got in the middle of it for a little over 4 years is a shock and an anomaly.

    You and others on the actually-totalitarian left (of course Jonah Goldberg was right) reject the idea that “truth” is a thing than can be objectively apprehended, yet selectively act as though there is a thing called “truth” that is what you and others who are disguised to yourselves as something other than the aspiring totalitarians you are tell us it is.

    The left is ascendant right now, and is nakedly totalitarian. Trump never was any of those things (left, ascendant, nor totalitarian), but,…well you know how he was, and is, characterized. If that characterization had been true, and he’d been a successful totalitarian, you’d have been, at best, deplatformed long since, and at worst, much worse.

    Maybe the most awful thing about our deranged moment is that it’s impossible to tell whether people really believe the stuff they say, or are knowingly manipulative. Either way, you on the left are absolutely the enemy of which Orwell thought and wrote. Trump, as multidimensionally obnoxious as he was, got closer to truth than you ever do.

    • weeklysift  On January 27, 2021 at 6:00 am

      I think the examples I gave are adequate evidence to prove that the Right does have the means to break words. “Fake news”, for example, has completely lost its original meaning.

      The evidence of your eyes and ears includes things like the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd, his public endorsements of violence, and his racism, which is on regular display.

  • Peter Johnson  On January 26, 2021 at 2:32 pm

    no Sift on Jan. 25?


    • weeklysift  On January 27, 2021 at 5:54 am

      True. I was late announcing it. In general, I’ve discovered I don’t have the stamina to produce a church service on Sunday and a Sift on Monday. So when I’m talking somewhere on Sunday, I cancel the Monday Sift.


  • By The Path to Unity | The Weekly Sift on January 18, 2021 at 12:17 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are “The Orwellian Misuse of ‘Orwellian’” and “To Save Democracy, End the […]

  • By Not Silent | The Weekly Sift on April 17, 2023 at 12:11 pm

    […] and we have since been able to reclaim fascism, a word that has a lot of work to do these days. In 2021, I updated my 2014 analysis to include fake news, socialism, and even, ironically, Orwellian. (The […]

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