The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Thoughtcrime’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Where did the word thoughtcrime originate? Most people, if asked, would probably shrug and say they don’t know. Of those people who feel confident enough to venture an answer, most of those would probably answer, ‘In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.’

Orwell certainly uses the term thoughtcrime, but did the word originate with him? Let’s take a closer look at the origins of this useful word.

George Orwell (1903-50), born Eric Arthur Blair, was one of the most remarkable writers of the first half of the twentieth century. His essays are among the best in the English language, not least because of their clear-headedness, married with a clarity of expression. Indeed, Orwell even wrote an essay about the need for political language to be clear and direct; we need his advice now more than ever.

As well as writing numerous essays and short journalistic pieces about everything from making the perfect cup of tea to the Spanish Civil War (in which Orwell fought, and was nearly fatally wounded), he also wrote a number of novels. Two of these, 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. Indeed, it’s surely the most famous dystopian novel in the world, even if its ideas are known by far more people than have actually read it.

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’s protagonist is Winston Smith, who works at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting historical records so they are consistent with the state’s latest version of history. However, even though his day job involves doing the work of the Party, Winston longs to escape the oppressive control of the Party, hoping for a rebellion.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is probably the most famous novel 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. A key part of the Party’s technique in controlling people’s thought is Newspeak, the new version of English which practises exactly the kind of political obfuscation which Orwell, in that earlier essay, had warned against. The idea is that if a word for something doesn’t exist, the thought cannot exist.

And so we get to thoughtcrime, a key word in the Newspeak dictionary alongside thought police, sexcrime, doublethink, and dozens of others. But perhaps thoughtcrime has, along with its sibling thought police, become the most popular outside the pages of the novel.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines ‘thought crime’ (which it gives as a two-word phrase rather than one word; in Orwell’s, in keeping with Newspeak, it is one word) as ‘unorthodox thinking considered as a criminal offence, usually in a totalitarian system’ or ‘an example of this’. The OED also notes that thoughtcrime is ‘the offence of failing in absolute loyalty to the ruling power.’

Early on in Orwell’s novel, we are introduced to the term thoughtcrime when Winston indulges in a small (and, as it turns out, unconscious) moment of minor rebellion, writing the words ‘DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER’ in his diary:

Whether he wrote DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER, or whether he refrained from writing it, made no difference. Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed – would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper – the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed for ever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.

Thoughtcrime is, then, exactly what it suggests it is: merely to think something forbidden is to commit a crime. This is by no means a modern phenomenon: it’s often been considered a crime for a person to imagine or think about the death of a monarch or emperor, for instance. Simply thinking about them dead is enough to land you in trouble.

Curiously, and crucially, the OED goes on to observe that Orwell merely ‘popularized’ the term thoughtcrime. So who originated it, then, if not Orwell?

The OED provides not one but several earlier instances of the term which predate Orwell, in some cases, by more than a decade. The word was originally coined after the Japanese shisō-hanzai, in use since 1928; the term means literally ‘thought crime’ or ‘thought offence’ and was applied, the dictionary tells us, to left-wing ideology which was viewed as a threat to imperial Japan.

And in 1934 the Japan Year Book for that year made reference to the Department of Justice’s ‘Special institution for the prevention of thought crime.’

And the following year, in 1935, H. Topping’s translation of Meditations on the Cross by the Japanese author Toyohiko Kagawa refers to Jesus as ‘a thought-criminal, but there is nothing to touch his thought-crime in Roman law.’

Thoughtcrime, then, began as ‘thought crime’ (or ‘thought-crime’, hyphenated) in the 1930s, from a Japanese term in use from the late 1920s. But it was only in 1949, when George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, that it came to the attention of the wider world.