You've probably heard people whisper about "Big Brother" or heard an unpopular policy decried as "Orwellian." What you probably don't know—and what most of the people who use these terms don't know either—is very much of the true story about the creator of these words and concepts that have so influenced the way we speak and think about politics. In simplest terms, George Orwell—the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair—was an English writer of novels, essays, and critical reviews. His best-known works are the novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four—one a spot-on allegory about the dangers of totalitarian government, the other a creepy prophecy of complete government control. But Orwell also wrote dozens of essays in which he aimed his sharp wit at everything from British imperialism, social inequality, and nuclear war to the ways that language is used to keep people under control. "What I have most wanted to do," he once wrote, "is to make political writing into an art."1 The rules he laid out for this art form still apply today.
Orwell is one of the world's most frequently evoked writers; as a result, he's also one of the most frequently misquoted and misunderstood. A New York Times essay a few years back put it best: If something's described as 'Orwellian,' it's probably not.2 (Who knows what old George would have thought about watching his fellow Englishmen scheme against one another on a "reality show" called "Big Brother.") Orwell detested broad, sloppy metaphors that dumbed down language and clouded an argument's complexity. He was a man of contradictions—an anti-imperialist who worried when he traveled that he wouldn't be able to find proper English tea, a deeply committed socialist who was equally opposed to communism. The author of Nineteen Eighty-Foursupplied the British government's propaganda wing with a list of people he suspected of having communist sympathies (that too is complicated—more on that incident later). He was as flawed as any human being, but what all of Orwell's friends, colleagues and biographers noted about him after his untimely death was his simple human decency. George Orwell critiqued no point of view as harshly as his own. He formed his opinions carefully and wrote about them with courage and discipline.