The Curious Origin of the Phrase ‘Thought Police’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Where does the term ‘thought police’ come from? If you’re tempted to answer, ‘George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four’, read on. In fact, read on anyway, because the answer may surprise you. Although Orwell popularised the phrase thought police in his classic dystopian novel, he was not the first person to use it.

Indeed, to locate the origins of thought police we need to go back to before Nineteen Eighty-Four – or before 1949, when that novel was published – and travel to a different country altogether.

But let’s start with Orwell, because he was undoubtedly the one who popularised the term in English-speaking countries.

George Orwell (1903-50), born Eric Arthur Blair, was one of the most remarkable writers of the first half of the twentieth century. As well as being one of the finest essayists the English language has ever known, he was also a novelist, and his last two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, remain popular and widely studied in schools and universities.

Orwell’s last novel before his untimely death from tuberculosis was Nineteen Eighty-Four, completed in 1948 and published a year later. The novel is a classic example of dystopian fiction.

It’s easy enough to summarise the premise for the novel. In the year 1984, Britain has been renamed Airstrip One and is a province of Oceania, a vast totalitarian superstate ruled by ‘the Party’, whose politics are described as Ingsoc (‘English Socialism’).

Big Brother is the leader of the Party, which keeps its citizens in a perpetual state of fear and submission through a variety of means. The novel, then, is about totalitarianism, and about the dangers of a one-party state where democracy, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and even freedom of thought are all outlawed.

The novel’s protagonist is Winston Smith, whom we meet at the beginning of the novel. And we don’t have to read more than a couple of pages into Nineteen Eighty-Four before we learn about the Thought Police:

Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig-iron and the overfulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

The Thought Police, then, represents state surveillance over its citizens, with everything they say, and everything they do, potentially monitored and picked up by their surveillance systems. You don’t even have to commit a crime to attract the suspicion of the authorities: even doing something which suggests you are thinking dangerous thoughts is enough to get a knock on the door from the Thought Police.

This takes the idea of curtailments on freedom of speech one stage further. If you say something suspicious, or which might be regarded as suspicious, you might be investigated by the police. But what if you didn’t even say anything, but merely did something which made the authorities think you were thinking inappropriate, seditious, or politically questionable thoughts?

But as we began this article by observing, the term thought police did not originate with Orwell’s novel. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists not one but four citations which predate Orwell.

Two are from 1934, some fifteen years before Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared on bookstands. In his book Challenge: Behind the Face of Japan, Upton Close wrote: ‘An entire picnic party of intellectuals was taken up on the beach by dangerous-thoughts-police.’

And in the same year, the Billings Gazette, a local newspaper serving the town of Billings in Montana, US, used the term on 7 October 1934: ‘The change is to be credited not to the “thought police”, but to the approaching emergency.’ Two further citations are given by the OED, from 1938 and 1945, the latter of which is in reference to the imperial Japanese regime, rather than Stalinist Communism.

Indeed, as the OED also observes for the etymology of thought crime, the term was formed in imitation of the Japanese shisō-keisatsu, which literally translates as ‘thought police’ and which was coined in 1930.

Orwell certainly did the most to popularise this new phrase among English-speaking readers, but it was Japan, and the Japanese language, which truly originated it.