Misquoting George Orwell
Introduction: George Orwell has rightfully become a major source of quotes because he has much to say to us, especially about politics, liberty, language, and their intersection. Unfortunately, he has also become a "quote magnet", that is, a person who has quotes attributed to him that he didn't actually say. This page collects together in one place quotes falsely attributed to Orwell, or genuine quotes taken misleadingly out of context.
Of course, it's hard to prove that Orwell did not say something. However, the burden of proof is not on me to prove that he didn't say something; rather, the burden of proof is on those who "quote" him to provide a citation to his writings where the statement was made. If no citation is given, that is a reason to doubt that the quote is genuine.
In claiming that the following quotes are not from Orwell, I have relied on several types of evidence. First of all, some quotes simply do not sound like Orwell's writing to someone familiar with it; as with the lack of a citation, this is primarily a reason to be skeptical. Stronger evidence against the genuineness of an alleged Orwell quote is that a search of his writings turns up nothing. However, it's still possible, though unlikely, that the quote might be found in some obscure source that is not searchable. Finally, the only evidence that can establish conclusively that Orwell is not responsible for a quote is to find it in another writer who was not quoting Orwell, but this is rare.
The following types of misquotes are included on this page:
- Contextomies: Quotes taken out of context in such a way as to create a misleading impression of their meaning.
- Misattributions: Quotes by someone other than Orwell that have been put in Orwell's mouth.
If you know of any misquotations of Orwell that should be included but aren't, wonder whether some alleged quote of Orwell is in fact genuine, have a citation for any of the following quotes, or have any other comments, questions, or corrections to this page, please let me know.
"A brilliant piece of writing!" GEORGE ORWELL
Exposition: Several years ago, I picked up a mass market paperback copy of James Hadley Chase's novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Having read Orwell's essay "Raffles and Miss Blandish", I was surprised to see the above blurb by Orwell on the back cover. Yes, he really did write that it was "a brilliant piece of writing", but there was no exclamation point. Here's the context of that blurb:
Now for a header into the cesspool. No Orchids for Miss Blandish, by James Hadley Chase…is not, as one might expect, the product of an illiterate hack, but a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere. …[I]t takes for granted the most complete corruption and self-seeking as the norm of human behaviour. …[S]uch things as affection, friendship, good nature or even ordinary politeness simply do not enter. … Ultimately only one motive is at work throughout the whole story: the pursuit of power. …[T]he book is not in the ordinary sense pornography. … The thing that the ordinary reader ought to have objected to—almost certainly would have objected to, a few decades earlier—was the equivocal attitude towards crime. It is implied throughout No Orchids that being a criminal is only reprehensible in the sense that it does not pay. Being a policeman pays better, but there is no moral difference, since the police use essentially criminal methods. … In a book like No Orchids one is not, as in the old-style crime story, simply escaping from dull reality into an imaginary world of action. One’s escape is essentially into cruelty and sexual perversion. …. In No Orchids anything is ‘done’ so long as it leads on to power. All the barriers are down, all the motives are out in the open. … Several people, after reading No Orchids, have remarked to me, ‘It’s pure Fascism’. This is a correct description, although the book has not the smallest connexion with politics and very little with social or economic problems. … It is a daydream appropriate to a totalitarian age. In his imagined world of gangsters Chase is presenting, as it were, a distilled version of the modern political scene, in which such things as mass bombing of civilians, the use of hostages, torture to obtain confessions, secret prisons, execution without trial, floggings with rubber truncheons, drownings in cesspools, systematic falsification of records and statistics, treachery, bribery, and quislingism are normal and morally neutral, even admirable when they are done in a large and bold way.1
Exposure: Obviously, Orwell heartily despised Chase's novel, which just goes to show that no review is so bad that it can't be mined by a clever editor for a positive blurb.
Example: The back cover of No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase2.
A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims…but accomplices.
Exposition: This does not sound like something Orwell would say. People may be victimized by an impostor; corrupt politicians usually attempt to hide their corruption, and sometimes they are successful. Such politicians may have the assistance of their parties, and sometimes even a complicit press to conceal their crimes. To call the people "accomplices" is to blame the victims for being victimized.
Exposure: The earliest occurrence of this quote that I've been able to find is from a pamphlet published in 2017 where it's attributed to "Georges" Orwell3―perhaps there really is someone of that name. So, we don't know who the actual author of the quote is, except that it almost certainly wasn't George Orwell. The ellipsis is a nice touch, since it makes it look as though it wasn't just made up.
- Nur Ibrahim, "Did Orwell Write That People Who Elect Corrupt Politicians Are 'Accomplices'?", Snopes, 11/30/2020
- Reuters Staff, "Fact check: Fabricated George Orwell quote about people who elect corrupt politicians", Reuters, 3/1/2021
- Rick Rouan, "Fact check: Orwell didn't write people who 'elect corrupt politcians' are 'accomplices'", USA Today, 3/3/2021
- Nina Godlewski, "George Orwell Quotes: Famous Sayings on Author's 115th Birthday", Newsweek, 2/26/2021
- Ricky Gervais, "'A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims…but accomplices'―George Orwell", Twitter, 11/19/2016
In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
Variant: "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."
Exposure: This, of course, makes no sense, since in a time of universal deceit, no one tells the truth, otherwise it would not be "universal". Orwell was too smart to have made that mistake.
- "In a Time of Universal Deceit―Telling the Truth Is a Revolutionary Act", Quote Investigator, 2/24/2013
- Brad Sylvester, "Fact Check: Did George Orwell Say, ‘Telling the Truth is a Revolutionary Act’?", Check Your Fact, 7/29/2019
Example: "'During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.'", GoodReads, accessed: 6/27/2023.
People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
Exposition: One way in which quotes get misattributed is when someone paraphrases the words of another, then others quote the words of the paraphraser while attributing them to the paraphrased. That is what happened in this case. Richard Grenier, in a newspaper article, wrote:
As George Orwell pointed out, people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.4
This is not a quote, as the lack of quotation marks indicates, but a paraphrase of what Grenier takes to be Orwell's view. So, if you like this quote and wish to use it, give Grenier the credit he deserves.
Exposure: While the exact words of the quote are not Orwell's, he did express similar sentiments. For instance, in an essay on Rudyard Kipling, he wrote: "He [Kipling] sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.5"
- "People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf", Quote Investigator, 11/7/2011
- Brad Sylvester, "Fact Check: Did George Orwell Say This Quote About ‘Rough Men’?", USA Today, 8/9/2019
Example: "'People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.'", GoodReads, accessed: 6/27/2023.
Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.
Citation: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Part 3, Chapter 2
Exposition: In addition to being a journalist, Orwell was also a novelist, and one of the dangers of quoting from novels is putting the words of a fictional character into the mouth of the author. That's what has happened here. The quoted sentence is from Orwell's novel, 1984, but they are spoken by the character O'Brien while he tortures the protagonist Winston Smith.
Exposure: The quote represents exactly the opposite of what Orwell believed. For instance, in one of his newspaper columns, Orwell wrote:
The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits "atrocities" but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future. … There is some hope…that the liberal habit of mind, which thinks of truth as something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not as something you can make up as you go along, will survive.6
Example: Nina Godlewski, "George Orwell Quotes: Famous Sayings on Author's 115th Birthday", Newsweek, 2/26/2021
The further a society drifts from the truth the more it will hate those that speak it.
Exposition: This is a rare case when we know the true author of the quote in question, namely, Selwyn Duke7, from an article as recent as fourteen years ago. How did Duke's quote get attributed to Orwell? We won't know for sure unless whoever was the first person to misattribute it comes forward, but it may be an example of Ralph Keyes' "axiom" that "famous quotes need famous mouths"8. Duke is less well-known than Orwell―in fact, I'm afraid that I'd never heard of him before I began researching the quote―so attributing the quote correctly would have less of an impact than putting the words into the better-known mouth.
Exposure: In the article from which the quote was taken9, the paragraph preceding the one in which it occurs mentions Orwell: "…[T]hey have thrust us into what George Orwell called 'a time of universal deceit,' where 'telling the truth is a revolutionary act.'" Ironically, this is itself a misquotation―see above. So, it's possible that whoever first misattributed the quote saw the name "Orwell" and mistakenly thought the subsequent remark was his, or confused the quote attributed to Orwell with Duke's subsequent words.
Example: Nina Godlewski, "George Orwell Quotes: Famous Sayings on Author's 115th Birthday", Newsweek, 2/26/2021
The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening.
Exposition: This quote is supposedly from Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the novel was first published in 1949, so it sounds anachronistic. While there were "telescreens" in the novel, the quote gives the impression that it was written after the rise of the cell phone, that is, within the last few decades.
Exposure: The source of this quote is a 2013 stage adaptation of 198410. Clearly, the writers of the play were attempting to update Orwell's novel and make it relevant to a 21st century audience.
- "Fact Check―Misattributed George Orwell quote stems from stage play", Reuters, 7/19/2021
- "George Orwell’s 1984 book quote is false", AAP Factcheck, 7/10/2019
- Alan Duke, "Fake News: Not George Orwell: 'The People Will Not Revolt, They Will Not Look Up From Their Screens Long Enough To Notice What's Happening'", Lead Stories, 9/28/2019
- Dan MacGuill, "Did George Orwell's '1984' Predict the Power of Smartphones?", Snopes, 7/17/2017
Example: "'The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens.'", GoodReads, accessed: 6/27/2023
- George Orwell, "Raffles and Miss Blandish", The Orwell Foundation, 1944. Paragraphing suppressed and emphasis added.
- James Hadley Chase, No Orchids for Miss Blandish (Avon Books, 1970).
- Boris Alexandre Spasov, "One Euro Before You Vote: An Essay", Google Books, 4/6/2017.
- Richard Grenier, "Perils of Passive Sex", The Washington Times, 4/6/1993, p. F3.
- George Orwell, "Rudyard Kipling", Horizon, 1942.
- George Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune, 2/4/1944.
- Selwyn Duke, "George Orwell is stealing my work", American Thinker, 11/14/2016.
- Ralph Keyes, "Nice Guys Finish Seventh": False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (1993), pp. 20-22.
- Selwyn Duke, "Stopping truth at the border: banning Michael Savage from Britain", Renew America, 5/6/2009.
- Robert Icke & Duncan Macmillan, 1984 (2014).