This list is guest-edited by Benedict Cooper, freelance journalist and trustee of the Orwell Society, who wrote an article for the i newspaper about the remarkable number of misquotations attributed online to the original railer against fake news.
1. “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Appears to have been first used, without the “universal”, and mistakenly attributed to Orwell, in Partners in Ecocide: Australia’s Complicity in the Uranium Cartel, by Venturino Giorgio Venturini in 1982.
2. “A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims, but accomplices.” This precise phrase does not appear in the Orwell library or in any of his correspondence (not least because he would have decided whether “people” was singular or plural).
3. “The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening.” This features in the 2014 stage adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan.
4. “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” It certainly sounds faintly Orwellian, at least to modern ears. Its origin is unclear, but it cannot be found in any of Orwell’s works.
5. “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.” As the Orwell Society confirmed with the Reuters fact-checking team in December 2021, this has been repeatedly debunked. It was coined by Selwyn Duke, a freelance writer who describes himself as a “teller of Truth and leftists’ worst nightmare” in his Twitter bio.
6. “To enforce the lies of the present, it is necessary to erase the truths of the past.” A phrase attributed to Orwell by American journalist Keith Olbermann while speaking on MSNBC in 2006. While it echoes similar lines from Nineteen Eighty-Four, it does not appear in this exact form anywhere in Orwell’s writing.
7. “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” Again this echoes statements of Orwell’s, but it is equally likely that a similar phrase written by Bertrand Russell in 1959 has since been misattributed to Orwell.
8. “It’s not a matter of whether the war is not real, or if it is, Victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous.” This appears at the end of Michael Moore’s polemic against the Iraq war, Fahrenheit 9/11, introduced by Moore saying: “George Orwell once wrote…” But these lines appear only in the film of Nineteen Eighty-Four, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton.
9. “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.” This appears to have been attributed to Orwell in the 1970s. He expressed similar sentiments in much of his writing, but not phrased in this form.
10. “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” The earliest incidence of these precise words is in a 1993 Washington Post article written by Richard Grenier, who attributed the sentiment to Orwell but did not claim to be quoting him. Orwell expressed similar, overlapping views in different words in an essay on Rudyard Kipling (who also said something similar) in 1942, and in his “Notes on Nationalism” in 1945.
Thanks also to Elliot Kane, who nominated no 1 when I said I should have another go at my Top 10 Misattributed Quotations because three of them were misquotations rather than misattributions.
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Next week: Most powerful people ever, after Janan Ganesh wrote in the Financial Times that President Truman in mid-1945 was “the most powerful human being who has ever lived”, because of the US’s nuclear monopoly and vast share of world economic output.
Coming soon: Extinct first names, after I came across the work of Algernon Newton, the artist.
Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to email@example.com
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