The term refers to the British author 'Eric Arthur Blair', who is known by his stage name George Orwell. His most famous work, the novel "1984", describing a repressive society under a totalitarian government, "Orwellian" is often used simply in the sense of authoritarian. But using the term in this way does not fully convey Orwell's message and risks doing exactly what he warned against.
Orwell campaigned against all forms of tyranny, fighting for much of his life against anti-democratic forces on both the left and the right. He was deeply concerned about how such ideologies spread. One of his deepest insights was the importance of language in shaping our thoughts and opinions.
The government of Oceania in "1984" controls the actions and statements of the people partly quite obviously. Their every move is watched and every word eavesdropped, and the threat to those who step out of line constantly hangs over them like a sword of Damocles.
Other forms of steering are not so obvious. The population is exposed to an ongoing flood of propaganda consisting of historical facts and statistics fabricated by the Ministry of Truth. The Ministry of Peace is the military. Labor camps are called "pleasure camps". Political prisoners are imprisoned and tortured in the Ministry of Love. This deliberate irony is an example of duplicity: the words used do not convey a statement, but undermine it, and their basic meaning is twisted.
The language is even more controlled by the regime
Words are eliminated from English to create the official dialect of "newspeak," a heavily truncated collection of shorthand and plain, concrete nouns that lack words complex enough to encourage nuanced and critical thinking.
Their effect on the psyche Orwell calls "Zwiedenken", a hypnotic state of cognitive dissonance, which forces one to discard one's own perception in favor of the officially prescribed version of events, which leaves the individual completely dependent on the state definition of reality. The result is a world in which even the privacy of one's thought process is violated, where one can be accused of a "thought crime" during speeches in one's sleep, and keeping a diary or a love affair is like a subversive act of rebellion.
This may sound like it can only occur in totalitarian regimes, but Orwell warned us about the possibility of it occurring even in democratic societies. Therefore, "authoritarian" by itself does not yet mean "Orwellian".
In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language", he describes techniques such as the use of high-sounding words to convey authority or make abominations sound acceptable by glossing over them and concealing them in nested sentence structure.
Banal language abuse
But even banal language abuse can affect our way of thinking. The words you see and hear in everyday advertising are designed to appeal to us and influence our behavior, as are the buzzwords and themes of political campaigns, which rarely present a multi-layered view of the issues. The own use of formulations and ready-made answers from media reports or the Internet makes it easier not to think too deeply about assumptions or to question them.
The next time someone uses the word "Orwellian," pay attention. If he talks about the misleading and manipulative use of language, he is on the right track. When he talks about mass surveillance and an intrusive government, he describes something authoritarian, but not necessarily "Orwellian". If he uses it as a general-purpose word for any ill-conceived notion, his statements may be more "Orwellian" than what he criticizes.
Words have the power to shape thoughts. Language is the currency of politics and shapes the basis of society, from the simplest everyday conversations to the highest ideals. Orwell urges us to protect our language, because ultimately our ability to think and communicate clearly stands between us and a world in which:
War is peace and freedom is slavery.