In the News: Big Brother on the Brain

Ayn Rand, George Orwell, Big Brother, Prism, NSA, 1984The recent uncovering of Prism, the covert digital surveillance operation carried out by the National Security Agency, has the airwaves and blogosphere abuzz with a phrase that packs a hefty political and emotional punch: Big Brother. Journalists, reporters, bloggers, and even the president have employed the term in recent weeks to refer to the US government, surfacing the association that exists in many people’s minds with the nightmarish consequences of unchecked political power.

The association can be attributed to George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, a cautionary tale of a totalitarian regime that utilizes invasive surveillance tactics and propaganda to control its populace. Big Brother is the epithet of the fictional ruling party’s enigmatic dictator—who may or may not exist—and the subject of the book’s most famous (and once again topical) line: “Big Brother is watching you.” In the wake of the Prism story, sales of 1984 have skyrocketed. It’s safe to say we’ve got Big Brother on the brain.

While Orwell is responsible for the sense of the term that’s dominating headlines today, the phrase Big Brother has been used to personify a governmental authority since the mid-1800s. H.G. Wells used it in a slightly broader sense his 1937 novel Star Begotten: “Out of these cravings come all these impulses towards slavish subjection to Gods, Kings, leaders, heroes, bosses, mystical personifications like the People, My Country Right or Wrong, the Church, the Party, the Masses, the Proletariat. Our imaginations hang on to some such Big Brother idea almost to the end.”

But Orwell’s repurposing of the term into something unambiguously menacing in 1949 resulted in a near eclipse of its former sense. Now, more commonly than not, it’s used to allude to a governmental authority that flagrantly abuses its power and threatens civil liberties. Rumor has it that Orwell was inspired by billboards for educational correspondence courses during World War II that featured an imposing and stern-looking man with the text “Let me be your big brother.” 1984 can also be credited with introducing the words doublethink and newspeak into the lexicon.

Literature has a long history of giving name to and ideas or concepts that are on the tips of our tongues; catch-22, quixotic, malapropism, and yahoo come to mind. Of course none of these has the achieved the buzzword status of Big Brother. Ayn Rand’s lexicographical contributions were brought back into vogue a few years ago, when sales for her homage to the free market and individualism, Atlas Shrugged, spiked with news of the bank bailouts. Pundits and politicians drew from her writings to rally anti-bailout, anti-big government sentiment. “Going Galt” is one notable phrase, named for Atlas Shrugged’s protagonist John Galt, that continues to resurface in the cultural dialog, referring to a person who retreats from society as a form of protest against perceived excessive taxation and government regulation.

From Big Brother to Going Galt, there’s no question that literature continues to play an influential role in helping us frame and discuss events of our day—and the terms themselves become more complex and layered as we reappropriate them over time. Are there other phrases or words pulled from literature that strike you as newly relevant in light of current events? What’s your favorite word or phrase from fiction?


  1. Tommy -  July 2, 2013 - 10:36 pm


  2. J Keats -  July 2, 2013 - 9:11 pm

    Why does a dictionary website incorrectly demarcate titles of books?
    They should be underlined or italicized.

  3. verax -  July 2, 2013 - 12:50 pm

    @fat cat: SERIOUSLY? You can’t even spell the word right.. I can’t understand why people like you exist. If you want a bigger font, just press ctrl+(+).

  4. Matt -  July 2, 2013 - 8:19 am

    My favorite phrase from fiction is Heinlein’s. TANSTAAFL

  5. Manasseb -  July 1, 2013 - 1:49 am

    Thank you for this very enlightening and well-written exposition.

  6. Maheshbabu -  June 30, 2013 - 6:13 am


  7. Suzieque -  June 28, 2013 - 12:26 pm

    My favorite phrase from fiction.

    ‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ he chortled in his joy.

    Not too many other people use it, though. :/

  8. Ole TBoy -  June 27, 2013 - 1:18 pm

    In one of William Faulkner’s novels someone says something to this effect: “It’s a bad night to be out in the woods with nothing between you and the cold ground but a thin gal.” Probably written back in the thirties, in Mississippi, where and when one could express such an unacceptable sentiment.
    In all fairness it could be restated: “It’s a bad night to be out in the woods with nothing with which to warm oneself but a scrawny lad.”

  9. Susan -  June 27, 2013 - 12:15 pm

    Blanks–as in Blank Reg from the great old TV show called Max Headroom. Blanks were those people who dropped out of the system and couldn’t be “tracked” in any fashion.

  10. GodfreIy Chibiuwa -  June 27, 2013 - 3:02 am

    Dictionary.com, thanks very much for your eye-opening, revealing, and insightful
    piece on the term ‘BIg Brother’. For me, Big Brother is Almighty, every National
    Government is Big Brother or Almighty over its jurisdtction.

  11. Cinta Higgins -  June 27, 2013 - 2:19 am

    A very interesting article indeed. 1984 is one of the most exciting, intriguing novels in Literature and reading this article gave me more to think about. Thank you!

  12. Alex -  June 27, 2013 - 1:12 am

    I’ve always found it fascinating and almost prophetic (for his own time) that the author of “1984″ was actually published under a different name. George Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair. This decision was made many years prior to the release of the book, which was the authors most famous.

  13. Star -  June 26, 2013 - 8:33 pm

    Funny how this popped up. Just got done reading part of 1984 from this online school credit thing a few days ago. Sad how at the end of the book he wound up loving ‘Big Brother’…..

  14. Patrick Campbell -  June 26, 2013 - 2:59 pm

    Thank you for a very enlightening and well-written exposition. Scariest of all, we are being watched every time we pull out a dollar bill. The eyeball on the bill is known as the “Eye of Providence”, but it looks to me more like Big Brother! Paranoids are herewith advised to withdraw dollar bills with the benign visage of George Washington facing them; the “EoP” will thereby point towards potential enemies.

  15. john chandler -  June 26, 2013 - 12:16 pm

    Can you repost this in Iambic Pentameter that be great

  16. jessie -  June 26, 2013 - 5:01 am

    “He disliked nearly all women and especially the young and pretty ones who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party the swallowers of slogans the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy.”

    ― George Orwell, 1984

  17. jessie -  June 26, 2013 - 4:23 am

    My favorite word or phrase from fiction is “Patriachy” that stems from soft “science” like postmodern sociology & art.

  18. fat cat -  June 26, 2013 - 1:30 am

    can you make the words bigger? and SCRIOUSLY [ i did not read it at all so do not care about the part were i said SCRIOUSLY ]

    thanks -fat cat


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked (required):

Related articles

Back to Top