big brother


noun

an elder brother.
(sometimes initial capital letters) a man who individually or as a member of an organized group undertakes to sponsor or assist a boy in need of help or guidance.
(usually initial capital letters) the head of a totalitarian regime that keeps its citizens under close surveillance.
(usually initial capital letters) the aggregate of officials and policy makers of a powerful and pervasive state.
Citizens Band Radio Slang. a police officer or police car.

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Origin of big brother

1860–65; 1949 for defs. 3, 4, the epithet of a dictator in G. Orwell's novel 1984
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

ABOUT THIS WORD

What does Big Brother mean?

A big brother can be an older male, related or not, who protects a younger person.

Big Brother (usually uppercase) also refers to an omnipresent, usually governmental authority that monitors everyone’s every move.

How is Big Brother pronounced?

[ big bruhth-er ]

Where does Big Brother come from?

In its simplest form, big brother has referred to an older brother since at least the early 1800s. By the mid-1800s, the phrase had extended to a person or organization who acts like an older brother, looking over and protecting others.

Throughout the 20th century, the metaphorical big brother, often capitalized as Big Brother, started evolving to signify, more ominously, an “all-controlling state.” Science-fiction author H.G. Wells notably used this Big Brother in his 1937 novel Star Begotten.

In his 1949 dystopian novel 1984 (Nineteen Eighty-Four), George Orwell created the contemporary meaning of Big Brother for a state government that is always conducting surveillance on the masses. In the novel, the phrase Big Brother is watching you accompanies an image of a mustached man’s face pasted on banners all over public spaces. The citizens understand that Big Brother‘s omnipresence means they are to act in compliance with the dictates of the regime—or else potentially be punished for “thought crime.”

In a nod to Orwell, the 1999 Dutch television series Big Brother featured contestants living together in a house that was under surveillance 24 hours a day. The extremely popular American version of the same show debuted in 2000. On social media, the hashtag #bigbrother is frequently used for fans of the show to show support for their favorite contestants.

In the digital era, the concept of a Big Brother is a hot topic around the globe, discussed with varying degrees of fear, disdain, cynicism, and conspiracy theories. Because of the ability to reach a massive customer base, companies regularly engage in electronic data collection in order to market products to consumers. This practice, often described in terms of Big Brother, is met with suspicion and skepticism, since it is not always clear who is gathering people’s personal details and why they are being collected. In 2013–14, former CIA employee Edward Snowden revealed information showing that the National Security Administration (NSA) was conducting extensive global surveillance, compelling many to characterize the NSA as Big Brother.

How is Big Brother used in real life?

Thanks to Orwell’s 1984, the concept of Big Brother, usually capitalized, is synonymous with any authority that exerts extensive control over its subjects. People who are critical about governmental monitoring of citizens’ every move may refer to this constant surveillance state as Big Brother.

In many large cities around the globe, like Beijing and London, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras monitor daily happenings. While intended as a crime deterrent, the constant monitoring helped spread a British term often used alongside Big Brother to convey governmental interference and overprotection: the nanny state.

Starting around the mid-2010s, smart speakers have been likened to Big Brother.

Big brother sees more colloquial use as well. Teenagers might refer to their parents as Big Brother, for instance, if they feel as though they have no personal freedom.

Big brother is, of course, also still used in families with male children who have younger siblings. It also continues to connote, positively, a protective, older male figure without any Orwellian undertones.

More examples of Big Brother:

“Saxophonist Joe Henderson called Carter “Big Brother” because of his apparent mind-reading ability, according to Whitaker.”
—Lawrence Cosentino, City Pulse, April 2018


“Just had a request to appear on #BigBrother. Having undergone 3 years of 24-hr watch in #Guantanamo, police bug in my car for 2 years, 8 months as CAT-A prisoner in Belmarsh and being from #Birmingham where #spycameras were installed to surveil my community, I declined.”
—@Moazzam_Begg, April 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

Example sentences from the Web for big brother

  • "And he's got a bully girl, too, now that she's got down to brass tacks," said Alec in big-brother style.

    The Fifth Wheel|Olive Higgins Prouty

British Dictionary definitions for big brother

Big Brother

noun

a person, organization, etc, that exercises total dictatorial control
a television gameshow format in which a small number of people living in accommodation sealed off from the outside world are constantly monitored by TV cameras. Viewers vote each week to expel a person from the group until there is only one person left, who wins a cash prize

Word Origin for Big Brother

C20: after a character in George Orwell's novel 1984 (1949)
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012