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Abbott and co. working from Orwell's playbook

  • 18 July 2014

Three decades ago the year 1984 attracted an intensity of noting, analysing and explication rarely devoted to other years. Some new expressions entered the language: 'Big Brother', 'Newspeak', 'Orwellian', 'thoughtcrime'; even the year itself, 1984, took on an enduring weight of meaning rarely granted in the march of time.

Of all the spin-offs from George Orwell's great novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother might be the best known, thanks to reality television. But the Big Brother whose diminishing presence loomed over those tawdry episodes owed little more than his name to the Orwellian original.

In the world of Airstrip One — the 1984 England of Orwell's anti-hero Winston Smith — Big Brother's 'enormous face' gazed from posters on every wall. 'It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.'

Whether he really was watching, no one was sure; he might not even exist. But in a society where in every room and public building the telescreen — 'an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror' flush with the wall, a 'flat screen' in 21st century parlance — followed every move, every word, every changing facial expression, the mere idea of Big Brother was enough.

The aim of the regime in Oceania, of which Airstrip One is a part, is not merely to hunt down, uncover and punish dissident ideas, but also to make dissident thinking actually impossible. To do this, the regime invents Newspeak, a version of English which when complete will be so pared back, so stripped, that it will fulfil its aim of narrowing 'the range of thought'. 'In the end,' Winston's colleague Syme explains to him, 'we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.'

'It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,' Syme says, '... there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of ... It isn't only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms ... what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself.

'Take 'good' for instance. If you have a word like 'good' what need is there for a word like 'bad'? 'Ungood' will do just as well ... if you want a stronger version of 'good' ... 'Plusgood' covers the meaning; or 'doubleplusgood' [for] something