Brave New World

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The phrase “brave new world” is popular in headlines used to introduce a variety of topics:

High School Basketball: Brave new world in regionals
The Brave New World of Ferraris in China
The Brave New World of Food
Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine
Why We Need To Talk Now About The Brave New World Of Editing Genes
Internet Eavesdropping: A Brave New World of Wiretapping
Welcome To The Brave New World Of The Corporate-Sponsored Artist 
Cubicles Rise in a Brave New World of Publishing

Because “brave new world” is an expression loaded with negative connotations, some of these uses are more appropriate than others.

The phrase originated with Shakespeare. When he put the expression in Miranda’s mouth in The Tempest, he was being ironic.

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

Miranda is speaking of the men whom her father—Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan— has caused to be shipwrecked on their island. The irony is that five of the eight men who come ashore are not “goodly” at all; they are dirty rotten scoundrels who represent all that is evil and corrupt in the “civilized” world of Europe.

When Aldous Huxley chose the phrase as the title of his 1932 novel about a future in which society is carefully organized and monitored, he was echoing the idea that what might appear to be wondrous at first glance may in fact be evil.

Writers who use the phrase as if it has a positive connotation misunderstand Shakespeare’s use of brave.

Modern speakers use brave to mean courageous, daring, intrepid, and stouthearted. We speak of “brave soldiers” and “brave explorers” who risk danger to do their work.

In Shakespeare’s day brave could mean splendid, showy, grand, fine, and handsome. Miranda, impressed by the appearance of the courtly strangers, was probably using the word with this meaning.

In any case, to speak of “a brave new world” of wine or basketball doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The second set of headline examples seems to have been written by people who know what Huxley’s novel is about.

Brave New World is set in a future in which technology has reorganized human reproduction so as to produce babies in laboratories. The goal is to eliminate such inconveniences as disease and human dissatisfaction. DNA is manipulated so as to produce three castes of people designed to be happy with different types of work. Should any of these designer people grow up to be nonconformists, they are exiled to remote locations. The headline about gene editing is especially on point.

Careful writers will not use the phrase “brave new world” if all they mean is “a new set of circumstances.” The phrase belongs only in a context of dehumanization or oppressive surveillance.

Brave New World entered the public domain in 2008.

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6 thoughts on “Brave New World”

  1. As to the main point of this post, yes.
    Now, from the Department of Pickypicky: DNA was discovered in 1869, and researchers gradually came to suspect it had a role in heredity, but that role was not identified until 1943 and not proven until 1952. DNA was not accurately described until 1953, when Watson and Crick (with help) came up with the now ubiquitous double-helix structure. So, it’s a bit of an anachronism to say “DNA is manipulated” in a book written in 1932, even though we now know that’s what would have been happening, indirectly.

  2. Charles,
    The thought that my comment is anachronistic regarding the novel did cross my mind, but I decided that, in the context of the post, the reference to DNA would be useful to many readers. As you say…

  3. Thanks for covering this one. It drives me crazy (like fingernails on a chalkboard) when people use “brave new world” in a positive sense. Having read Shakespeare and Huxley, I end up with a very different image in my head than writers probably intend. Every year, there seems to be less and less common cultural knowledge in our society.

  4. This seems to happen almost inevitably when a term of art or a reference from literature, or something similar enters general usage. The entire meaning gets lost. I think of the regularity with which any run-of-the-mill problem is described as a catch 22– “Tried to go to work and my car wouldn’t start! Catch 22!”. Or when an “eye for an eye” is employed as shorthand for particularly cruel punishment, “The Saudis still behead adultresses in their ‘eye-for-an-eye’ system of justice.” It’s more than just annoying because genuinely useful terms that express specific concepts (e.g. catch 22) are ruined.

    “Begging the question” has it’s own well-deserved entries, I believe. It is worth volumes.

  5. On the other hand, although Shakespeare was using irony, Miranda, who spoke the words, was not. By the way, thank you for the excellent example of irony.

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