Orwellian: World’s Worst Word.
This essay primarily continues on the work of Geoffrey Nunberg of the New York Times. The primary difference is in my argument of the issues with the reductive nature of eponyms.
Eponyms are without a doubt one of the more interesting means of tribute that exist. An eponym, defined as “a name or noun formed after a person”, is such a living, almost sentient, way of honoring someone. It means that their life was so impactful that just a mere mention of their name evokes a certain certain frame of thinking or reference.
Like most tributes, be they eponyms, monuments, or whatever, is that when they are done wrongly, it’s a disaster. This is evident in what I think is the worst word in the English language, Orwellian.
Orwellian is defined as “authoritarian, reminiscent of the regimes that existed in 1984.” The popularity of the term has skyrocketed in recent years, as it is seemingly employed by both people on both ends of the spectrum as a political pejorative that accuses the person, policy, or ideology of having the characteristics of Winston Smith’s dictatorial Oceania. However, as Geoffrey Nunberg mentions, this use is a complete misunderstanding and misappropriation of the life of the man who it honors.
There are three major problems with this use of the word Orwellian. Firstly, the word as a political tool is often used by right-wing conservatives, who conveniently ignore the fact that George Orwell was a proud and vocal socialist. Secondly, the fact that the word is used at all politically makes it not a tribute but rather a spit in the face of the man whose most well-known essay is a criticism of the increased use of language as a political tool. Lastly, and most meaningful to me, is that the word is a prime example of the issues with the reductive nature of the present moment. Orwellian ignores the majority of the biography and works of George Orwell, one of the most complex authors of the 20th century, and reduces his legacy to two books that he wrote late in his life: 1984 and Animal Farm.
As Christopher Hitchens’ points out in his lecture on “Why Orwell Matters,” George Orwell was a man who devoted his life towards writing against the corruptive nature of power. In effect, the modern use of the word Orwellian to describe a tyrannical, authoritarian government is the same as if there were a word called “Gandhism” that advocated for violent revolution or British Mercantilistic rule.
What exasperates this already problematic usage of the word is when pundits use the word in hyperbole as a means to demonize a political opponent. Using The sophisticated usage of language to service a political ideology rather than to convey genuine meaning?
Even more interesting, is attachment right-wing American politicians seem to have the legacy of George Orwell, a man whose prominent Socialist views would likely have been the cause for segments against the writer by the same people who so casually evoke his legacy. I can just imagine it now “Anti-British liberal writer George Orwell pushes Socialism in his essays read by YOUR kids.”
In my opinion, when people use this word as a pejorative in the political arena, they are either willfully ignorant in using his name, or they are trying to score some “sophisticated points” in a very negative way that ignores what the man and his writing was actually about.
You don’t need to be a great fan of Orwell’s to know that his writing extends beyond just 1984 and Animal Farm. In fact, it was essays To Shoot an Elephant, Marrakesh, Why I Write, and the aforementioned Politics and the English Language that led Orwell to receive the relative prominence he did during his career, and 1984 and Animal Farm were both written towards the tail end of his life. All of these essays have more to do with his personal relationship with the power he felt he had or lacked during his life, and little to do with the authoritarian themes of “Big Brother” or “Some Pigs are more equal than others” that is seen in Animal Farm or 1984.
Moreover, in novellas like Such Such Were the Joys or Down and Out in Paris and London we get a chance to step into the shoes of this writer and see that his writing goes beyond just the dynamics of power, as Hitchens’ would say, but rather his writing extends primarily into wondering what the purpose of life was, and fragility in thinking one’s status above or below someone is deserved.
Orwellian does not convey this complex narrative, in fact, it doesn’t even try. It is a lazy reduction that has been co-opted by the politically advantageous in order to convey an ethos of literary grandiosity and logos to what is, in sum and substance, now a pretty base pejorative.
Now eponyms don’t necessarily have to be positive tributes. The examples Geoffrey Nunberg points out, ‘‘’ Kafkaesque,’’ ‘’Hemingwayesque,’’ ‘’Dickensian’,’ and “Machiavellian” share a plurality of connotations. That said, at least with the rest of them their meanings actually pertain to what each respective author spent the majority of their careers writing about. Orwellian does not extend that curtosey as it focuses directly on two novels he wrote towards the end of his life rather than his complete and diverse body of work that I have alluded to throughout this essay. Thus the question begs, what is the criteria for a good eponym? Well here are my humble suggestions
Criteria for a passable eponym:
- Must actually reflect what the figure spent most of their life working on.
- Must coincide with what they actually believed in, Dickensian gets a pass because at least Dickens spent the majority of his life writing about the world that his eponym describes.
- If done ironically, it has to at least be about the central focus of the figure's life, a la point two.
We are entering an ever-increasingly political world. One in which we are so quick to make grand generalizations on complex ideas, concepts, and people. In a time such as this, it is important to remember the work of George Orwell, and his call for contemplation on not just politics but the underlying desires and motivations of both good and evil that we all share. A step in the right direction is to take the word “Orwellian” out of our lexicons and prevent the politically advantageous from using it.
Examples of Fox News using Orwellian:
Liberal media reaction to Michael Avenatti conviction slammed as 'Orwellian,' 'appalling'
Members of the mainstream media have issued a mea culpa for building up now-disgraced attorney Michael Avenatti, while…