I've been doing some Internet research, and the only thing that people agree on is that we don't know. There are, however, three theories.
One (slightly convoluted) theory is that he took the date from Alexander Chayanov's Путешествие моего брата Алексея в страну крестьянской утопии (My Brother Alexei's Journey Into the Land of Peasant Utopia), which is set in 1984, through a connection with Yevgeny Zamyatin, the author of We, a novel which inspired 1984. However, this is not a very likely theory.
The most common theory:
- He swapped the last two numbers of the year he started writing it in - 1948.
However, I found another theory that I personally found much more believable:
- It was named after a poem by his wife, Eileen Blair - The End of the Century, 1984.
According to Wikipedia, Eileen wrote the poem End of the Century, 1984 for the 50th anniversary of her school, in 1934. The 100th anniversary would then be 1984.
Although the poem was written a year before she met Blair, there are some similarities between the futuristic vision of Eileen's poem and that in Nineteen Eighty-Four, including the use of mind control, and the eradication of personal freedom by a police state.
As she died in 1945, when Orwell was working on 1984, it seems quite possible that he would name it after her poem, in her memory.
Several parts of the poem by Eileen Blair are reminiscent of a dystopian world, such as 1984:
Every loss is now a gain
For every chance must follow reason.
A crystal palace meets the rain
That falls at its appointed season.
(this seems to be referring to weather control)
No book disturbs the lucid line
For sun-bronzed scholars tune their thought
To Telepathic Station 9
From which they know just what they ought:
The useful sciences; the arts
Of telesalesmanship and Spanish
As registered in Western parts;
This is talking about mind control - like the fact that you must love Big Brother and the Thought Police.
Mental cremation that shall banish
Relics, philosophies and colds --
"Who denounced you?" said Winston.
"It was my little daughter," said Parsons with a sort of doleful pride. "She listened at the keyhole....
-Book 3, I
But really, nobody knows for sure, and we can't exactly ask the author at some point. So while we can theorize, we won't know for sure.
A variety of other possible answers have been put forth, put succinctly in a Guardian column from 2009:
Orwell's title remains a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London's novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favourite writer GK Chesterton's story, "The Napoleon of Notting Hill", which is set in 1984.
In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes), Peter Davison notes that Orwell's American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there's no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair's birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There's no mystery about the decision to abandon "The Last Man in Europe". Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more commercial title.
(Richard Blair was his adopted son).
Note that he started writing the book before 1948, but he was retyping/rewriting a rough draft and trying to decide between "1984" and "The Last Man in Europe" for a title, and according to the article I quoted above, correspondence written by Orwell about his indecision between these two titles was sent during or just before 1948.
The year 1984 was probably chosen to sound like 1948 while still being in the future.
Anthony Burgess, in his book 1985, part novel and part commentary on Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, gives the following explanation of the title:
You have to remember what it was like in 1948 to appreciate Nineteen Eighty-Four. Somebody in 1949 told me - that was the year the book came out - that Orwell had wanted to call it Nineteen Forty-Eight. But they wouldn't let him.
He goes on to describe Nineteen Eighty-Four as "no more than a comic transcription of the London of the end of the Second World War". This analysis is supported by a great many comparisons drawn between various aspects of the London portrayed in Orwell's novel and similar things seen in London as it really was around 1948.
I refuse to draw a moral. The moral that Orwell draws from what he saw of the British working man is terrible and excessive. I insist on looking for comedy.
And for an identification of 1984 with 1948?
Yes, which is part of the comedy, comedy a bit grim at times, positively black. And a touch of pathos. One wants to weep over Winston Smith, so recognizable as an Englishman of the forties bred out of the working class - 'a smallish, frail figure ... his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended'. Inured to cold weather and privation, undersized through a tradition of poverty and bad feeding. He looks out on London 'with a sort of vague distaste. ... Were there always those vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions?' The answer is - not always. This is the London of war-time or just after. It's certainly not a London of prophetic vision.
Orwell wrote the novel in the year 1948, and intended it as a satirical commentary not only on life in the Soviet Union under Stalin (of which, it must be recalled, Orwell had no first-hand experience) but also on contemporary life in Britain. With this in mind, it makes sense that he originally wanted to call the novel Nineteen Forty-Eight (a statement which other critics have rejected, but even its falsehood wouldn't invalidate the larger point) and that in the end he chose a title which evoked the idea of the modern day ("the modern day" being 1948) but was still far enough ahead to be imaginable as a possible future rather than an alternative present. Thus, 1984.
All quotes are from Anthony Burgess, 1985, available on Google Books here; all emphasis is mine.
In Orwell's manuscript of the novel, the action took place first in 1980, then 1982, and finally 1984. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/10/1984-george-orwell 1
Curiously, Chapter 2 of Part 2, when Winston meets Julia in the countryside on a Sunday afternoon, states that it was the second of May. That would actually place it in 1982. https://www.free-online-calculator-use.com/day-of-the-week-calculator.html 2