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10 Historical Words That Don't Mean What You Think


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Orwellian
British author George Orwell is the source for the word "Orwellian", a term that has been used by writers on both the left and the right. ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
British author George Orwell is the source for the word "Orwellian", a term that has been used by writers on both the left and the right. ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The name brings a slight chill. "Orwellian" is used to refer to a situation similar to that described by author George Orwell in his novel "1984." The book depicted a future totalitarian state featuring thought control, governmental surveillance and the practice of giving something bad a name that makes it sound good. The Oxford English Dictionary first noted the use of "Orwellian" in 1950, just one year after "1984" was published [source: Peters]. Since then, the term has come in handy for all sorts of situations, generally in a negative way. Consider for instance, the Clear Skies Act of 2003, which was criticized by environmentalists for actually making it easier for power plants to pollute the air (the act never passed) [source: Curtius and Hamburger]. Or how about the discovery that the U.S. National Security Agency was secretly collecting phone records of private citizens in 2013?

The problem is that George Orwell wrote more than one novel. He was a writer who penned other books as well as a socialist thinker. He was also, say many, a pretty nice guy. "Orwellian" should simply mean someone who admires George Orwell's works and ideas. The Oxford English Dictionary does say this is one definition [sources: Nunberg, Peters]. Unfortunately, though, not the primary one. Interestingly, both people on the left and the right have used the phrase "Orwellian" to describe policies they disagree with. Sorry, George.


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