My new book is a Utopia in the form of a novel. I ballsed it up rather, partly owing to being so ill while I was writing it, but I think some of the ideas in it might interest you. We haven’t definitively fixed the title, but I think it will be called “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.   George Orwell (4th February 1949)

An inquisitive student recently queried why the cover of their novel had the title, Nineteen Eighty-Four but the film adaptation they had viewed was 1984? Another held their edition of the book aloft to reveal a numeric title.  Which was correct?

As recently as last month a new, exquisitely bound limited edition of the only substantial manuscript to survive Orwell’s nomadic lifestyle was published with the numeric title, 1984: Manuscript. These drafts were originally published as Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Facsimile of the Extant Manuscript. Why the variation?

Courtesy of SP Books

Publishing History

The novel was originally published in Great Britain and the United States of America during 1949, six months prior to George Orwell’s premature death, aged 46.  The title was Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, the iconic dust jacket designed by Michael Kennard for the genuine first edition of the novel published by Secker & Warburg on the 8th June (featured above), has both. Five days later the American edition from Harcourt & Brace was published, no numerals, just Nineteen Eighty-Four on the dust jacket. Countless editions, in many languages, have been published subsequently with either the alphabetic or numeric title, almost never with both on the cover.

The Book-of-the-Month Club edition was published the following month and if you have a copy no longer housed in a dust jacket, it is barely distinguishable from the earlier American edition. There is only a very slight difference on the copyright page and oddly, a small black dot at the bottom right of the back cover. The inside front and back flaps of the dust jacket do clearly identify it as a Book-of-the-Month Club edition.

The first American paperback was published by Signet in 1950 as 1984 (with a wonderfully dubious cover design endlessly recycled for foreign editions). In Great Britain, it was not until 1954 that Penguin released the novel in soft covers, as Nineteen Eighty-Four.

By the end of 1950, editions in Danish, Dutch, French, Finnish, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian and Swedish were available. Translators and publishers overwhelmingly chose “1984” (except the Germans and Swedes) rather than the alphabetic script. This pattern has continued to the present day with few exceptions in these editions that are in languages other than English.

There are now countless paperback editions of the novel in English and apparently no rhyme or reason for the choice of numeric or alphabetic title.

How did Orwell want the title to be written? 

In the summer of 1945 Orwell commenced drafting Nineteen Eighty-Four, completing it in December 1948. However, the genesis of the novel dated from 1943 (or possibly early 1944). His literary notebook contained several pages of ideas for “The Last Man in Europe” including concepts that were to be at the heart of the novel: “Newspeak”; “the proles”; “ingsoc” and “party slogans (War is peace. Ignorance is strength. Freedom is slavery)”; and, “The Two Minutes Hate”.

Orwell’s correspondence with his agent, publishers and friends from the time he completed the first draft of the novel, in early November 1947, until the book was printed provides a clear record of his ambivalence about the title. The first mention of Nineteen Eighty-Four is in a letter to his literary agent, Leonard Moore, on the 22nd October, 1948:

“I have almost finished the novel and shall have it ready for typing early in November, so it should be all finished by the time I promised, ie. beginning of December. It is extremely long, I should say 100,000 or even 125,000 words. I have not definitely decided on the title. I am inclined to call it either NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE, but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two.”

For five years the projected titled had been The Last Man in Europe and one wonders if the novel would have been phenomenally successful if that had ended-up gracing the cover?

Orwell’s drafts reveal why this new title came so late in the piece. The novel was originally set in 1980 and over the years of writing, he changed it to 1982 and then finally, 1984. The late Professor Peter Davison doubted that the title was the year the book was finished, 1948, reversed to be 1984, as often suggested:

“It is arguable that, in setting the novel in, successively, 1980, 1982, and 1984, Orwell was projecting forward his own age, 36, when World War II started, from the time when he was planning or actually writing the novel. Thus, 1944 + 36 = 1980; 1946 + 36 = 1982; 1948 + 36 = 1984. It is not, perhaps, a coincidence that in 1944, when the idea for the novel might reasonably be said to be taking shape, Richard was adopted. It would be natural for Orwell to wonder at that time (as many people did) what prospects there would be for war or peace when their children grew up. By choosing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell set his novel in both present and future. Had Orwell only been writing about the present, there would have been no need for him to have advanced the year beyond 1980, and preserving the interval he did – of 36 years – must have had significance for him. Inverting the final digits of 1980 and 1982 would have been meaningless; the inversion of those for 1984 was probably coincidental.”

On the 17th January 1949 Orwell wrote to Moore making it clear that he was not concerned about the title:

“I am glad the new book is fixed up for the USA. I assume it does no harm for it to have a different title here & there. Warburg seems to prefer the title “1984”, & I think I prefer it slightly myself. But I think it would be better to write it “Nineteen Eighty-four,” but I expect to see Warburg shortly & I’ll talk to him about that.”

On the 22nd January 1949 he told Moore:

“I am glad Harcourt Brace seem to be pleased with “1984.” I have had a talk with Warburg, who prefers this title and is inclined to agree with me that it would be better to write the number NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR rather than put the figure. As I said before, I doubt whether it hurts a book to be published under different names in Britain and the USA—certainly it is often done—and I would like Harcourt Brace to follow their own wishes in the matter of the title.”

Even as late as 4th February 1949, Orwell wrote to his friend, Julian Symons, explaining that “We haven’t definitively fixed the title, but I think it will be called “Nineteen Eighty-four”.

Only a few days later, on the 8th February, Harcourt and Brace sent Orwell the manuscript to proof. The die was cast.


Close examination of textual issues in the publication history of such a culturally significant novel as Nineteen Eighty-Four has occupied scholars for close to three-quarters-of-a-century. There are some particularly delicious ironies to be savoured, interesting influences and life experiences that fuelled the author’s creativity. The title of the novel itself led to a flurry of interest as the year 1984 approached and this fascination has continued, to the surprise of some, showing no signs of abating.

With more than a little irony, considering Orwell’s concerns about technology evident in the novel, I asked the artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT the question, which is the correct title for George Orwell’s novel, “1984” or “Nineteen Eighty-Four”? The response provides a pretty reasonable summary:

The correct title for George Orwell’s novel is “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” This is the full and official title of the book. It is often shortened to “1984” for convenience, but the correct title is “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” 

I then used an aggregator to see what decisions contemporary publishers are making for the cover of the novel. It is overwhelmingly the case that editions published in the last two years are titled, 1984. You can verify this using Bookfinder.


Davison, Peter (ed.), George Orwell: A Life in Letters, Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Davison, Peter (ed.), The Lost Orwell: Being a Supplement to the Complete Works of George Orwell, Timewell Press, 2006

Fenwick, Gillian, George Orwell: a Bibliography, Winchester: Oak Knoll Press & St. Paul’s Bibliographies, 1998

Nineteen Eighty-Four, London: Secker and Warburg, 8 June 1949

Nineteen Eighty-Four, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949

Nineteen Eighty-Four, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949 (Book-of-the-Month Club edition)

1984, New York: Signet, 1950 (#798)

Nineteen Eighty-Four, London: Penguin, 1954

Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Facsimile of the Extant Manuscript, London: Secker & Warburg, 1984 (edited by Peter Davison)

1984: Manuscript, Cambremer: SP Books, 2022 (introduction by DJ Taylor)

Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 9, London: Secker & Warburg, 1997

Two Wasted Years: 1943, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 15, Secker & Warburg, 1998

Smothered Under Journalism: 1946, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 18, Secker & Warburg, 1998

I Belong to the Left: 1945, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 17, London: Secker & Warburg, 1998

Smothered Under Journalism: 1946, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 18, London: Secker & Warburg, 1998

It Is What I Think: 1947–1948, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 19, London: Secker & Warburg, 1998

Our Job Is to Make Life Worth Living: 1949–1950, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 20, London: Secker & Warburg, 1998

Taylor, D.J., On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography of George Orwell’s Masterpiece, ABRAMS Press, 2019

FEATURED IMAGE: courtesy of Quintessential Rare Books


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