13 Surprising Facts About George Orwell

Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Before he assumed the pen name George Orwell, Eric Arthur Blair had a relatively normal upbringing for an upper-middle-class English boy of his time. Looking back now, his life proved to be anything but ordinary. He's best known for penning the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four—regarded as one of the greatest classics of all time—but writing novels was only one small facet of his life and career. In remembrance of Orwell, who was born 115 years ago this month, here are 13 facts about his life that may surprise you.

1. HE ATTENDED PREP SCHOOL AS A CHILD—AND HATED IT.

Eric Blair spent five years at the St. Cyprian School for boys in Eastbourne, England, which later inspired his melodramatic essay Such, Such Were the Joys. In this account, he called the school’s proprietors “terrible, all-powerful monsters” and labeled the institution itself "an expensive and snobbish school which was in process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive." While Blair's misery is now considered to be somewhat exaggerated, the essay was deemed too libelous to print at the time. It was finally published in 1968 after his death.

2. HE WAS A PRANKSTER.

Blair was expelled from his "crammer" school (an institution designed to help students "cram" for specific exams) for sending a birthday message attached to a dead rat to the town surveyor, according to Sir Bernard Crick's George Orwell: A Life, the first complete biography of Orwell. And while studying at Eton College, Orwell made up a song about John Crace, his school’s housemaster, in which he made fun of Crace’s appearance and penchant for Italian art:

Then up waddled Wog and he squeaked in Greek:
‘I’ve grown another hair on my cheek.’
Crace replied in Latin with his toadlike smile:
‘And I hope you’ve grown a lovely new pile.
With a loud deep fart from the bottom of my heart!
How d’you like Venetian art?'

Later, in a newspaper column, he recalled his boyhood hobby of replying to advertisements and stringing the salesmen along as a joke. “You can have a lot of fun by answering the advertisements and then, when you have drawn them out and made them waste a lot of stamps in sending successive wads of testimonials, suddenly leaving them cold,” he wrote.

3. HE WORKED A NUMBER OF ODD JOBS FOR MOST OF HIS CAREER.

A photo of Orwell with a BBC microphone

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Everyone’s got to pay the bills, and Blair was no exception. He spent most of his career juggling part-time jobs while authoring books on the side. Over the years, he worked as a police officer for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (present-day Myanmar), a high school teacher, a bookstore clerk, a propagandist for the BBC during World War II, a literary editor, and a war correspondent. He also had stints as a dishwasher in Paris and as a hop-picker (for breweries) in Kent, England, but those jobs were for research purposes while “living as a tramp” and writing his first book about his experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London. (He chose to publish the book under a pseudonym, George Orwell, and the name stuck.)

4. HE ONCE GOT HIMSELF ARRESTED ON PURPOSE.


The National Archives UK // Public Domain

In 1931, while investigating poverty for his aforementioned memoir, Orwell intentionally got himself arrested for being “drunk and incapable.” This was done “in order to get a taste of prison and to bring himself closer to the tramps and small-time villains with whom he mingled,” biographer Gordon Bowker told The Guardian. At the time, he had been using the pseudonym Edward Burton and posing as a poor fish porter. After drinking several pints and almost a whole bottle of whisky and ostensibly making a scene (it’s uncertain what exactly was said or done), Orwell was arrested. His crime didn’t warrant prison time like he had hoped, and he was released after spending 48 hours in custody. He wrote about the experience in an unpublished essay titled Clink.

5. HE HAD KNUCKLE TATTOOS.

While working as a police officer in Burma, Orwell got his knuckles tattooed. Adrian Fierz, who knew Orwell, told biographer Gordon Bowker that the tattoos were small blue spots, “the shape of small grapefruits,” and Orwell had one on each knuckle. Orwell noted that some Burmese tribes believed tattoos would protect them from bullets. He may have gotten inked for similarly superstitious reasons, Bowker suggested, but it's more likely that he wanted to set himself apart from the British establishment in Burma. "He was never a properly 'correct' member of the Imperial class—hobnobbing with Buddhist priests, Rangoon prostitutes, and British drop-outs," Bowker wrote.

6. HE KNEW SEVEN FOREIGN LANGUAGES, TO VARYING DEGREES.

Orwell wrote in a 1944 newspaper column, “In my life I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones, and out of those seven I retain only one, and that not brilliantly.” In his youth, he learned French from Aldous Huxley, who briefly taught at Orwell’s boarding school and later went on to write Brave New World. Orwell ultimately became fluent in French, and at different points in his life he studied Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Burmese, to name a few.

7. HE VOLUNTARILY FOUGHT IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR.

Like fellow writer Ernest Hemingway and others with leftist leanings, Orwell got tangled up in the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 33, Orwell arrived in Spain, shortly after fighting had broken out in 1936, hoping to write some newspaper articles. Instead, he ended up joining the Republican militia to “fight fascism” because “it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” The following year, he was shot in the neck by a sniper, but survived. He described the moment of being shot as “a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.” He wrote about his war experiences in the book Homage to Catalonia.

8. HIS MANUSCRIPT FOR ANIMAL FARM WAS NEARLY DESTROYED BY A BOMB.


Thomas D, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 1944, Orwell’s home at 10 Mortimer Crescent in London was struck by a “doodlebug” (a German V-1 flying bomb). Orwell, his wife Eileen, and their son Richard Horatio were away at the time, but their home was demolished. During his lunch break at the British newspaper Tribune, Orwell would return to the foundation where his home once stood and sift through the rubble in search of his books and papers—most importantly, the manuscript for Animal Farm. “He spent hours and hours rifling through rubbish. Fortunately, he found it,” Richard recalled in a 2012 interview with Ham & High. Orwell then piled everything into a wheelbarrow and carted it back to his office.

9. HE HAD A GOAT NAMED MURIEL.

He and his wife Eileen tended to several farm animals at their home in Wallington, England, including Muriel the goat. A goat by the same name in Orwell’s book Animal Farm is described as being one of the few intelligent and morally sound animals on the farm, making her one of the more likable characters in this dark work of dystopian fiction.

10. HE COINED THE TERM “COLD WAR.”

The first recorded usage of the phrase “cold war” in reference to relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union can be traced back to Orwell’s 1945 essay You and the Atom Bomb, which was written two months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the essay, he described “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.” He continued:

“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly centralized police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.’”

11. HE RATTED OUT CHARLIE CHAPLIN AND OTHER ARTISTS FOR ALLEGEDLY BEING COMMUNISTS.

Orwell self-identified as a democratic socialist, but his sympathy didn’t extend to communists. In 1949, he compiled a list of artists he suspected of having communist leanings and passed it along to his friend, Celia Paget, who worked for the UK’s Information Research Department. After the war ended, the branch was tasked with distributing anti-communist propaganda throughout Europe. Orwell's list included Charlie Chaplin and a few dozen other actors, writers, academics, and politicians. Other notable names that were written down in his notebook but weren’t turned over to the IRD included Katharine Hepburn, John Steinbeck, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles, and Cecil Day-Lewis (the father of Daniel Day-Lewis).

Orwell’s intention was to blacklist those individuals, whom he considered untrustworthy, from IRD employment. While journalist Alexander Cockburn labeled Orwell a “snitch,” biographer Bernard Crick wrote, “He wasn’t denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for counter-intelligence operation.”

12. HE REALLY HATED AMERICAN FASHION MAGAZINES.

A woman reads a fashion magazine in the '40s
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images

For a period of about a year and a half, Orwell penned a regular column called As I Please for the newspaper Tribune, in which he shared his thoughts on everything from war to objective truth to literary criticism. One such column from 1946 featured a brutal takedown of American fashion magazines. Of the models appearing on their pages, he wrote, “A thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender, non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are quite universal.”

As for the inane copy that accompanied advertisements, he complained:

"Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, inner-sole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize, and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random: 'A new Shimmer Sheen color that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.' 'Bared and beautifully bosomy.' 'Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!' 'Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!'"

In the rest of the column, he went on to discuss traffic fatalities.

13. HE NEARLY DROWNED WHILE WRITING NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.

One day in 1947 while taking a break from writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took his son, niece, and nephew on a boating trip across the Gulf of Corryvreckan in western Scotland, which happens to be the site of the world's third-largest whirlpool. Unsurprisingly, their dinghy capsized when it was sucked into the whirlpool, hurling them all overboard. Fortunately, all four survived, and the book that later came to be called Nineteen Eighty-Four (originally named The Last Man in Europe) was finally published in 1949, just seven months before Orwell's death from tuberculosis.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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