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?