Eric Arthur Blair, author of such famous books as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm among many others, used the name George Orwell for his books. From the linked Wikipedia page (cited to Voorhees, The paradox of George Orwell):

The pen name "George Orwell" was inspired by the River Orwell in the English county of Suffolk.

Why did he decide to name himself after that river?


4 Answers 4


We don't know for sure, but he may have known the river.

Blair originally submitted a list of four possible pseudonyms to his agent, Leonard Moore, telling Moore that he could make pick of the four1:

  • P.S. Burton
  • Kenneth Miles
  • H. Lewis Allways
  • George Orwell

There are several reasons Blair chose to use a pen name at all, one being that he thought that "Blair" was "too Scottish"2. He wanted something English, and, from the research I've done, all of the above names are indeed English in origin ("Kenneth" is an Anglicization, but its connotations are probably less Scottish than "Blair"'s).

The reasons for "Orwell" even being on the list are a bit more complicated. Blair spent quite some time in Southwold in his 20s and 30s, where his parents were living. It's a coastal town in Suffolk, with the nearest large towns (relative to tiny Southwold) being Lowestoft, Norwich, and Ipswich. Orwell grew familiar with the area, including the coastal regions to the north and south. The River Orwell is about 40 miles to the south, running from Ipswich to the coast, and it is possible that Orwell was familiar with it.3 The page George Orwell: An Exhibition from the Collection of Daniel J. Leab indicates that it may have been a stop during his journeys to London, which seems plausible.

By using "Orwell", Blair was playing homage to the area that led to much of his early writing. There's also a village of the same name in Cambridgeshire, about 60 miles from Southwold. There are, however, some questions. If he wanted the name to be after a Suffolk river, why not, for instance, use the River Blyth, which flows right through Southwold (perhaps the name's Scottish roots led to the same distaste as with "Blair")? These questions probably will never be answered; there is no evidence that the River Orwell had any special significance to him over any other place in Suffolk.4

We do have to consider, though, that Blair did not want to choose something that could be easily traced back to him or his family. Around the time of the publication of Down and Out in Paris and London, his first longer work (a memoir), he wrote

I would prefer the book to be published pseudonymously. I have no reputation that is lost by doing this and if the book has any kind of success I can always use the same pseudonym again.

Given that today, we have to look hard to see if there's any deeper connection between Blair and his name, it seems that for a while, he succeeded in distancing Eric Blair from George Orwell.

1 The text of the 1932 letter can be found here. In it, Blair lists the names and writes, "I would rather favour George Orwell". (Thank you Gallifreyan!)
2 "Too Scottish" has been quoted all over the Internet, but it's extremely difficult to find an original source for it. The best indication I can get is from a 1936 letter from Blair to Norah Myles, in which he writes, "The Blairs are by origin Lowland Scottish & dull". That's the only thing I can find referring to his family's name's history and Scotland.
3 The Dictionary of Pseudonyms states that the River Orwell was the river "on whose banks he had lived", which seems improbable, given the 40 miles of separation. It is quite possible, though, that Blair spent time in Ipswich and on the river.
4 Anonymous Speech: Literature, Law and Politics notes that it is possible that Blair considered "Orwell" while walking along the banks of the river with his father.


  • 2
    Nice answer! I'm especially intrigued by the fact that he considered Blair "too Scottish" - do you have a reference or any more details about this?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 14, 2017 at 22:22
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    @Randal'Thor I can't get you a direct quote, but it comes from the Dictionary of Pseudonyms, page 362.
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 14, 2017 at 22:24
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    Minor niggle in a great answer: I grew up in the general area described, and I know that Lowestoft and Ipswich are not cities, nor are they large by the standards of English conurbations. This area of England is rural and very sparsely populated.
    – Matt Thrower
    Feb 15, 2017 at 9:15
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    @MattThrower That's probably down to different English varieties: in US English, a "city" is any reasonably large town, whereas in British English it's formally a specific status that has to be granted, and even informally would only be used for much larger settlements.
    – IMSoP
    Feb 15, 2017 at 10:26
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    @MattThrower IMSoP's right; I was using the American colloquial meaning. I was also using it as a relative term, comparing them to Southwold (population ~1,000) and the other small villages and towns Orwell would have known. I've made an edit to the answer to clear this up.
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 15, 2017 at 14:17

The source cited (The Paradox of George Orwell by Richard Voorhees) gives a simple reason for the choice of this name:

When he was twenty-seven, he took as a pseudonym the name by which he is generally known, Orwell, from a river in Suffolk near which he once lived, and George as a typical English name.

  • 3
    That ... doesn't answer my question. I know he chose his name after the river in Suffolk; my question is why did he choose to name himself after that river?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 15, 2017 at 1:04
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    It...kinda does, but isn't a very strong answer. All the answer really says is that he once lived near that river.
    – Shokhet
    Feb 15, 2017 at 1:07
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    I do agree that HDE's answer is so much better; I just thought that a citation from an Orwell biography might carry a little more weight
    – Shokhet
    Feb 15, 2017 at 1:07

As the questioner implies, I too can't help but think there is more to choosing George Orwell as a pen name than has come to light. To think it arbitrary goes against the grain. Eric Blair never wrote anything arbitrarily. He always placed himself in the writing. His feelings, his history, his ideas and his anger.

The younger George Orwell was supposedly something of a prankster and I wonder if there is an element of "find me if you can" within his pseudonym.

So here is an idea. One that I may get around to exploring one day.

Yes Orwell is after the river.

Could George be after George Gissing his favourite author and his favourite source for ideas.

If, on a map, you look north of the river Orwell there is the village of Gissing.

Is it possible that water flows as a tributary from Gissing to the River Orwell as did ideas from George Gissing to Eric Blair?

I have google mapped it as much as I can and can not see that it does. There is the river Gipping (I so wish this was spelt Gissing) that is a tributary to the river Orwell and does get us closer to the village of Gissing - but I am lost from there.

It needs someone to drive out to the village of Gissing, get their wellies on to see if there is any water tributary from Gissing to Orwell.

Even if there isn't - and Eric Blair knew nothing of the village of Gissing, I like the idea that he would take some relish in my surmise.

  • 1
    Forget Google Maps: for Britain there's the far superior Magic, which has all the info of Ordnance Survey maps but in online, searchable, zoomable form. I had a look around Gissing and couldn't see any river immediately nearby, but you might be able to find something if you want to put more time into it. Interesting theory!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 31, 2020 at 8:44
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    This page says that Orwell is/was the name of a village in Norfolk, which would be even more interesting, but I can only find one in Cambridgeshire. More geography to dig into?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 31, 2020 at 8:47
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    This answer is highly speculative as written. Could you back up any of it with evidence? What makes you think that Orwell was "something of a prankster" as a young man? What makes you think Gissing was Orwell's "favourite author"? (He wrote that "England has produced very few better novelists" than Gissing, but "very few" is not "none".) Dec 31, 2020 at 9:57
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    Hi, Thanks for the comments. Yes very speculative; coupled with wishful thinking. But hey I will one day pay a visit to the village of Gissing and see if I can conjure up anything. it will only ever be conjecture at best. And at worst will be a day out and a small adventure. As to the prankster: there are some tales of him behaving as such. A quick google: mentalfloss.com/article/546150/…' Dec 31, 2020 at 12:01
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    As to the prankster: there are some tales of him behaving as such. A quick google: mentalfloss.com/article/546150/…' . George Gissing I think was his favourite author and he just about said as much - but granted i don't think there is a definitive quote that states "George Gissing is my favourite" . Dec 31, 2020 at 12:13

I thought there was a section in Down & Out when he was on the boat back to the UK when someone asked him the name of the river they were on (which was the Thames?) and he replied (knowing he was not telling the truth) that it was the Orwell. But it is some time since I read the book and would invite corrections to my memory (as I don't have the book at hand).

  • Down & Out is available to read online (Project Gutenberg), and there doesn't seem to be anything like this in the book.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 22, 2021 at 16:51
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