Was Orwell Orwellian?

While bumming around Spain a few years ago, my son and a friend began discussing the inadequacy of the adjective “Orwellian.” The classic definition, supplied by the Oxford English Dictionary, is well known: Orwellian “...portrays a form of totalitarian state seen by him as arising naturally out of the political circumstances of his time.” The usage is ubiquitous.

By Alex Beam

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Published: Mon 24 Jan 2011, 10:43 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:48 AM

Earlier this month, the conservative classicist Victor Davis Hanson was fulminating about the environmental movement’s “Orwellian metamorphosising nomenclature” on his website.

But my son and his pal correctly noted that George Orwell’s life and writings embraced such a diversity of experience that “Orwellian” could mean many other things. “Orwellian” could describe someone working as a dishwasher in a filthy kitchen (“Down and Out in Paris and London”), or a member of Britain’s pre-World War II middle class (“Keep the Aspidistra Flying”), or a solider shot through the neck while peeping above a trench who lives to write about it.

What about “Dickensian”? Most commonly, it means “reminiscent of the harsh poverty-stricken living conditions described in the works of Dickens,” according to Microsoft’s Encarta dictionary. “Sounded Dickensian,” the novelist Kate Atkinson writes in “Started Early, Took My Dog,” describing the female police pensioner’s lot: “As if she should be sitting in the corner of a workhouse, wrapped in a dirty shawl.” In fact, many of Dickens’s characters enjoyed satisfactory working conditions and lived bucolic lives. Esther Summerson dreams away a contented, pastoral existence in “Bleak House.” Throw me in that Dickensian briar patch!

Here is the Orwellian judgment on Dickens, published in 1940: “The central action of Dickens’s stories almost invariably takes place in middle-class surroundings. ... His real subject-matter is the London commercial bourgeoisie and their hangers-on – lawyers, clerks, tradesmen, innkeepers, small craftsmen, and servants.”

On the conservative side of modern politics, “Burkean” now occupies an envied pride of place. Commentators fall all over one another to caress the cloak of Edmund Burke, the reasoned, anti-revolutionary, 18th century British parliamentarian. “Modern conservatism begins with Edmund Burke,” the columnist David Brooks has written. “What Burke articulated was not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a reverence for tradition, a suspicion of radical change.”

But Burke, like Orwell and Dickens, was a complicated fellow. For instance, he supplied us with some of the fieriest anti-imperial rhetoric of the English language, in his famous condemnation of Warren Hastings, the British East India Company and the rule of the Raj:

“Mr. Hastings’ government was one whole system of oppression, of robbery of individuals, of spoliation of the public, and of supersession of the whole system of the English government, in order to vest in the worst of the natives all the power that could possibly exist in any government.” It is hard to imagine the conservative crowd following Burke down this anti-colonial, anti-corporate path.

“Herculean”? That’s easy. “Requiring tremendous effort, strength,” says the Collins English Dictionary. But it could mean many other things, for instance, killing your own children, which was a fairly common blood sport in ancient times. Medea would be a famous example, and the Greek hero Agammemnon, who killed his daughter in return for better sailing weather.

Or it could mean being killed by your own wife, which also happened to Hercules. No, she wasn’t angry about losing her daughter; she suspected him of dallying with an attractive young princess. She didn’t really mean to kill Hercules, but to reawaken his desire for her with a love potion that tragically proved to be a poison. Yes, mistakes were made, in this most Dickensian of plots.

Wikipedia calls “Nixonian” “a term used to signify extreme secretiveness or corruption.” Secretive yes; extremely corrupt? It’s hard to make the case for the stubble-cheeked Sage of San Clemente, who I am convinced will someday benefit from a David McCullough-like buff job, similar to the one administered to Harry Truman.

Maybe politically and morally corrupt, rather than economically corrupt and bent on personal financial gain.

Hmmm. Sounds like Newspeak, an Orwellian defence, at best.

Alex Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe

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