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14 Things You Might Not Know About Nineteen Eighty-Four

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George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has given us a whole slew of shorthand phrases for dystopian or oppressive governments and surveillance, but even if you’ve already read about Winston Smith’s struggle against Big Brother, there are a few facts, stories, and theories about the novel that are worth a closer look.

1. IT NEARLY WASN’T CALLED NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.  

In the year leading up to its publication, Orwell vocalized his indecision over what to call his novel. Before ultimately settling on Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took a long look at the title The Last Man in Europe

2. HE ALSO HAD TROUBLE DECIDING IN WHAT YEAR THE STORY WOULD BE SET.

Before assigning his fearful prognostications to the year 1984, Orwell tried out 1980 and 1982. 

3. BEFORE CRITICIZING PROPAGANDA IN NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, ORWELL WORKED AS A PROPAGANDIST. 

During World War II, Orwell served as a television producer at the British Broadcasting Corporation. His role with the BBC Empire Service involved creating and supervising programming that the nation would feed to Indian networks to encourage a pro-Allies sentiment and spark volunteering. 

4. THE AUTHOR MODELED ROOM 101 AFTER AN OFFICE AT THE BBC. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four’s most horrifying setting is Room 101, the Ministry of Love’s torture chamber in which victims are exposed to their worst nightmares. What readers might not know is that Orwell modeled the chilling locale on an actual room. 

As a propagandist, Orwell knew that much of what the BBC said had to be approved by the Ministry of Information, probably in the BBC Broadcasting House's Room 101. He probably drew the name of his nightmare room from there. Curious about what the dreadful room looked like? The room has since been demolished, but in 2003 artist Rachel Whiteread created a plaster cast of the room

5. ORWELL WAS BEING WATCHED WHILE HE WROTE NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. 

Twelve years before he published Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell released the nonfiction piece The Road to Wigan Pier, an exploration of poverty and class oppression in England during the 1930s. Thanks to the investigative research he had conducted for Wigan Pier, which included the documentation of labor conditions in coal mines, and for the book’s pro-Socialist inclinations, Orwell was placed on a watch list by the government’s Special Branch and kept under tight surveillance for over a decade. His official file noted Orwell’s "advanced communist views" and that he "dresses in a bohemian fashion."

6. BIG BROTHER’S REGIME BORROWED PRACTICES FROM WORLD GOVERNMENTS. 

Orwell didn’t limit his sights to a single tyrannical power when designing the oppressive regime showcased in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The author borrowed a number of elements from the Soviet Union, including the "2 + 2 = 5" slogan from the so-called "five-year plan" for national development starting in 1928, while the NKVD police force provided the model for most of the Thought Police and Ministry of Love’s activity. Additionally, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s treatment of Thought Crimes resembled how the Special Higher Police, a special Japanese policing service during World War II, condemned unpatriotic thoughts during their self-styled "thought war."

7. JULIA IS BELIEVED TO BE BASED ON ORWELL’S SECOND WIFE. 

Many scholars have speculated that Julia, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s female lead and romantic interest to protagonist Winston, was modeled after Orwell’s second wife, Sonia Brownell. The comparison might not have been all that flattering, though. Orwell describes Julia as a "rebel from the waist downwards" and ultimately has Winston betray her to aid his own liberation. 

8. ORWELL WROTE THE BOOK WHILE STRUGGLING WITH TUBERCULOSIS. 

While most of us would use the opportunity of a mild cold to take a week off from work, Orwell did not let a 1947 bout with tuberculosis shift his focus away from his latest novel. It wasn’t until after he had finished Nineteen Eighty-Four, two years after his initial diagnosis, that he sought proper treatment for the disease. 

9. THE BOOK ONCE HELD THE RECORD FOR MOST TRANSLATIONS. 

By 1989, four decades after its publication, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm had both been translated into 65 languages, a record for a pair of books by a single author. 

10. ONE OF THESE TRANSLATIONS DIDN’T "GET" THE OPENING LINE. 

Although it’s common for a text to undergo changes during translations, the original Italian version of Nineteen Eighty-Four did quite a number on the ominous tone leavened by the book’s famous opening line: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." 

An unnamed translator altered the sentence to read, "…and the clocks were striking one," ostensibly unaware that Orwell had intentionally included an hour not present on most analog clocks. As 24-hour clocks were more common in Italy than in other parts of the world, the translator apparently saw no special value to Orwell’s original hour.

11. ORWELL NEARLY DROWNED WHILE WORKING ON THE NOVEL. 

Much of the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four was done in Jura, Scotland, where Orwell found himself to be most productive. Even in this setting, he was hardly exempt from bouts of procrastination—some of which were particularly disastrous. Taking a break from his writing one day in the summer of 1947, Orwell led his son, niece, and nephew on a boating expedition across the nearby Gulf of Corryvreckan. During the trip, the family’s dinghy capsized unexpectedly, tossing the lot of them overboard without life jackets. Luckily, all four survived, but the event was hardly helpful to Orwell’s already delicate medical state. 

12. NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR IS ALREADY IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN IN SOME COUNTRIES. 

Orwell’s novel is currently in the public domain in Canada, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, and Oman. The book will become public domain in the 28 nations of the European Union, as well as in Russia, as of 2021, and will be so in the United States in 2044. 

13. THE BOOK IS A FAVORITE NOVEL OF MANY FAMOUS FANS.

Stephen King, David Bowie, Mel Gibson, and Game of Thrones star Kit Harington have all listed the novel as or among their favorite books of all time. 

14. ORWELL DIED ONLY SEVEN MONTHS AFTER NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR WAS PUBLISHED. 

Although Orwell had seen success as a broadcaster, journalist, nonfiction writer, and as the author of Animal Farm, he unfortunately never got to witness the incredible influence that his most popular piece would have on the world. Orwell died on January 21, 1950, due to complications from tuberculosis.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Inside This Pop-Up Book Are a Planetarium, a Speaker, a Decoder Ring, and More
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      Designer Kelli Anderson's new book is for more than just reading. This Book Is a Planetarium is really a collection of paper gadgets. With each thick, card stock page you turn, another surprise pops out.

      "This book concisely explains—and actively demonstrates with six functional pop-up paper contraptions—the science at play in our everyday world," the book's back cover explains. It turns out, there's a whole lot you can do with a few pieces of paper and a little bit of imagination.

      A book is open to reveal a spiralgraph inside.
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

      There's the eponymous planetarium, a paper dome that you can use with your cell phone's flashlight to project constellations onto the ceiling. There's a conical speaker, which you can use to amplify a smaller music player. There's a spiralgraph you can use to make geometric designs. There's a basic cipher you can use to encode and decode secret messages, and on its reverse side, a calendar. There's a stringed musical instrument you can play on. All are miniature, functional machines that can expand your perceptions of what a simple piece of paper can become.

      The cover of This Book Is a Planetarium
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

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