The phrase 'BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU' from the opening chapter of Orwell's 1984 could be interpreted as the big brother being of a protective nature, or intimidatory.

What word is used to describe a phrase, such as this, that can be interpreted in different ways?

  • 2
    I would argue that there are few words, or especially phrases, that can be taken in only one way... Oct 28, 2021 at 14:01
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    Ambiguous? Double meaning? Oct 28, 2021 at 14:03
  • 1
    Ambiguous! Thank you Yosef.
    – Jonathan
    Oct 28, 2021 at 14:05
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    I this instance, isn't it both meanings? Oct 28, 2021 at 15:16
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    Double entendre. Ambiguity. Dissembling Oct 28, 2021 at 16:40

3 Answers 3


Note, this very book gave rise (perhaps through some slight mutation) to a term that has entered common usage: doublespeak. This is indebted to the concept in 1984 of doublethink, which is explicitly about holding contradictory double meanings simultaneously.


"Ambiguous" does indeed refer to a word or phrase that could have more than one meaning. Usually language is "ambiguous" as it relates to the context and words surrounding it. But it is not wrong to use it in this case, either.

However, there is more.

In this book, you'll find that not only are there two ways of looking at concepts like "Big Brother", but also that a powerful group of people who control the conversation are trying to give the impression that one way ways of seeing a concept is true, and the other is not. They have chosen the exact words, setting, or impression carefully to support just one interpretation.

They are therefore engaging in "propaganda".

  • Good propaganda cannot be interpreted in different ways. It is intended to produce a specific effect in the audience. Aug 3, 2023 at 13:19

As comment has stated, "ambiguous" is the word that comes to mind.

Especially when it comes to discussions involving identity, loyalty, and feelings, "complicated" is also sometimes used.

Sometimes, language is used in ways which intentionally have multiple meanings, and "misleading" and "confusing" can be on the table.

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