Given the current surge of people calling everything they see around them “Orwellian” and doing so incorrectly, I thought I would just come here and try to explain the meaning of the word.
The term was named after the British author Geoge Orwell because of one of his most famous books, the novel “1984”. In his book, Orwell illustrates an oppressive society under a totalitarian government. The word “Orwellian” is often used solely to mean authoritarian, using the term in this way not only fails to fully convey Orwell’s message, but it also risks doing something he tried to warn against.
The government showed to us in “1984” controls its people’s actions and speech in obvious ways, such as watching and hearing their every move and word with punishment waiting for anyone who defies authority. But there are other forms of control which are not so obvious. People are overwhelmed with endless propaganda consisting of made-up facts and statistics, which come from the “ministry of truth”.
Here another term comes into place, “doublespeak”. In “1984”: the military is called the ministry of peace, labour camps are called joycamps, and political prisoners are detained and tortured in what is called “the ministry of love”. Doublespeak is when words are used not to communicate meaning but to weaken it. This has an effect Orwell calls “doublethink”, which is essentially cognitive dissonance, leaving the individual completely dependent on the State’s definition of reality.
These concepts aren’t something that can only happen in totalitarian states, but that could potentially take place in democratic societies. And this is why we can’t use “authoritarian” and “Orwellian” as synonyms.
Orwell was opposed to all forms of totalitarianism and spent most of his life fighting against anti-democratic forces. He was deeply concerned with how such ideologies propagate, giving a great amount of importance to the role of language when it comes to shaping our thoughts and opinions as individuals and as a society.
I would also really like to mention Orwell’s work is often used as being against communism and as well as fascism. Even though it is very much against fascism, as it should, we can’t call Orwell’s novel anti-communist if anything it was anti-capitalism and mostly anti-authoritarian. I say anti-capitalism because fascism is mostly a result of far-right ideologies, as seen throughout history and nowadays as well in a lot of different countries, such as the USA with Trump and Brazil with Bolsonaro, for example. Not to mention, Orwell himself was a democratic socialist which goes against the idea right-wight people have of him being against socialism.
With all this being said, I highly recommend you pick two of his non-fiction books that will make you understand his political ideologies and why he was so anti-totalitarian regimes. These books are Politics and the English Language and Fascism and Democracy.
Anyway, I hope this was helpful and I’m sorry if my rambling went on for way too long.
Bye, keep on reading.