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After 75 years of George Orwell’s 1984, we’re all talking in Newspeak

George Orwell, 1984 the book and Big Brother from the 1984 film version.
George Orwell died at the age of 46, and did not live to see Nineteen Eighty-Four become the cultural juggernaut it is today (Picture: Alamy/ Rex)

While I was in the middle of re-reading George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four last week, a funny thing happened.

I was reading an article about the actor Richard Dreyfuss on the Metro website. He’d ranted on stage about LGBTQ+ rights and the MeToo movement ahead of a screening of Jaws at a Massachusetts theatre, and his son Ben was defending him.

‘My dad is not a perfect guy,’ he wrote.

‘I know that better than anyone reading this. But I love him profoundly. Do not ask me to denounce him. I will not do it. I especially will not do it over thought crimes!’

Thoughtcrimes: one of the most chilling concepts introduced in the book I was reading. Conscious or unconscious feelings considered a threat to the ruling Party’s grip on power, that will get you shot ‘in the back of the neck’, as the protagonist Winston Smith says.

I don’t think I could have arranged a more perfect example of the way the dystopian classic has influenced the way we look at the modern world – in more ways than one.

When Orwell sat down to write his book at Barnhill, the remote farmhouse on the Scottish island of Jura where everyone knew him by his real name Eric Blair, he wasn’t trying to predict the future.

Instead, he was trying to warn his readers of the calamities that can result from a radical revolution, in a world where the technology exists to rewrite the past and track the intentions of every citizen.

Whether or not we are currently in that world is up for debate.

AHADHY 1984 GB Productions 1955 film version of the novel by George Orwell. Image shot 1955. Exact date unknown.
A poster in the 1956 film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo)

The ubiquitous telescreens which play music and propaganda inside people’s homes, but also record every sound they make – perhaps they’re a bit like a modern-day Alexa or Google Nest, always listening in the background.

A speakwrite, as described in the book, certainly exists these days – it’s just a speech-to-text transcription tool, of the kind that I use regularly as a journalist.

But if there’s one aspect of life that has undeniably been shaped by Nineteen Eighty-Four in the 75 years since it was published, it’s language.

‘Newspeak’ is the name given to the malign corruption of the English language in the book. Orwell put a lot of thought into it. There’s even an appendix describing its ‘principles’ in an academic manner that takes on a chilling resonance coming directly after the devastating ending.

Unlike other languages created for books, the idea behind Newspeak was not to create new or different words. It was to strip existing words and meanings away, so that ‘a heretical thought […] should be literally unthinkable’.

Thankfully, English isn’t heading in that direction at all. But Orwell – who died less than a year after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published – might have been curious to learn that we’ve voluntarily adopted a few of his terms into our vocabulary.

Take ‘doublethink’, for example. In the book, it means the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time – a concept that some people have found handy in the current election campaign.

Which brings us back to Ben Dreyfuss. Thoughtcrime (technically the Newspeak term is crimethink) is a notion that’s been growing in popularity over the past decade or so.

75 years since Orwell published 1984 - what did he predict and what came true? Thoughcrime metro graphic
This graph from Google’s Ngram Viewer shows how the frequency of the word ‘thoughtcrime’ in print has increased recently (Picture: Ella Millward)

That might be because, somewhere along the way, it seems to have changed meaning. In 2024, somebody committing ‘thoughtcrimes’ is – like Richard Dreyfuss – voicing views that aren’t considered socially acceptable.

They’re unlikely to result in the thoughtcriminal being shot in the back of the neck, and they’re not even necessarily threatening to those in power. Often it’s the complete opposite, those without power, who are the target.

But the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is so viscerally horrifying that it’s tempting to invoke it in such circumstances, to subtly suggest there’s a chance we’re at the top of a greasy slope which will land us in the filthy London that sits on Airstrip One.

That’s the influence Orwell’s masterpiece still holds three-quarters of a century on.

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