ABOUT 500 WORDS | Columns

A word for all seasons, and for all reasons too

From being one of the most evocative of words, pregnant with meaning and atmosphere, ‘Orwellian’ is on the verge of falling into meaninglessness through a mixture of overuse and misuse. It means different things to different people. When it is used to describe an individual it is a compliment – for Orwell was “the wintry conscience of a generation” and “one of the best prose writers.” And who wouldn’t like to be in such a club?

Used to describe a political activity, however, Orwellian suggests repression, and a range of situations from, as the novelist Anthony Burgess pointed out, “a computer printout to the functional coldness of a new airport.”

According to the New York Times, “The word has been used to describe such varied phenomena as the euphemistic jargon of the nuclear industry, the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and a ’60s-era kitchen appliance that turned powdered mixes into coffee and soup.”

Funny, when you consider that the word was first used by the novelist Mary McCarthy in an article about fashion magazines: “Flair,” she wrote about one of them, “is the leap into an Orwellian future, a magazine without content or point of view beyond its proclamation of itself.” That was in 1950, a year after the publication of Orwell’s 1984, where Newspeak, thoughtcrime, Big Brother, Room 101 made their appearance.

When Donald Trump Jr. announced on Twitter following his father’s ban from that site that “we are living in Orwell’s 1984,” the descent into farce was hastened. It wasn’t safe to use the word any more. Orwellian had become merely something you did not agree with.

When Justice B.N. Srikrishna (who led the committee that drafted India’s Personal Date Protection Bill) said that allowing the Centre to exempt its agencies from some or all of its provisions was “dangerous” and could turn India into an “Orwellian State”, he was using the word in both its literary and political senses. In the former, it meant (at one level) saying one thing and doing its opposite. In other words, using language to control how opinions are formed. President Donald Trump’s “fake news” was, ironically, Orwellian usage.

Last year when Prime Minister Boris Johnson begged Tories to ‘work with him’ amid fury over coronavirus lockdown he admitted there were ‘Orwellian’ elements to the restrictions the government has been imposing. It was a handy, if lazy characterisation. And wrong usage too.

Being misunderstood is the price Orwell had to pay for his popularity (1984 was recently a bestseller on Amazon - 70 years after publication!). Even if we accept that the meaning of a work of art is never limited to its creator’s intentions.

Once a word, an idea, a painting, a sculpture, a concept is in the public domain, the creator has no control over how it will be interpreted or used. Gresham’s Law (in economics, “bad money drives out the good”) operates here too. Bad usage drives out the good. Perhaps that is an important implication of ‘Orwellian’ too.

(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 6:25:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/a-word-for-all-seasons-and-for-all-reasons-too/article33588760.ece

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