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December 4, 2008

Party Like It's 1984

Need a shorthand expression for the increasing loss of privacy in the digital age? How about a single word to summarize the paradoxical messages espoused by someone in a position of power? Or an easy way to characterize a government that oversteps its bounds? Lazy journalists have been partying like it's 1984 with their reliance on the misused cliché "Orwellian."

George Orwell

Journalistic cliché is very un-Orwellian. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Just how prevalent is this irritating term? In the span of 24 hours, it has been used by news sources to describe a theater version of Dance Dance Revolution, a British DNA database, a spokesman for the Department of the Interior, the Mormon church, airport security, and Ari Fleischer.

In a little more than a week, the New York Times applied the "Orwellian" label to a play about social networking, a a judicial decision rendered in Guantanamo Bay, and an MIT program that collects information from students.

The Times should know better, having run an op-ed in 2003 arguing that the term has come to represent the very things Orwell stood against. In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell wrote that "political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness" in order to obscure "arguments which are too brutal for most people to face." Yet phrases like "ethnic cleansing" and "weapons of mass destruction," have been termed Orwellian. 1984 is a book that aims to criticize the "doublespeak" (a term Orwell coined) and lack of privacy in totalitarian governments, so there is something unseemly about using Orwell's name as a synonym for those practices. It's as if Jonathan Swift's name was equated not with satire, but cannibalism.

The sad irony is that Orwell's name is being used as a journalistic crutch, while his work as a journalist was meticulously crafted, with an unmatched eye for detail in language. Though we can't really expect writers to stop resorting to easy clich&233;s, we can hope that they find another easy term to substitute for the erosion of our private lives. Might we suggest "Googlian?"

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