5 hijacked words that need our help

We need to wrest back control of them or strike them from our vocabulary

Dictionary
Language is common property — we need to look after it (Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash)

It is quite normal for the meaning of words to change over time. English words which have moved a significant distance from their original meaning include:

Flux. While the original meaning of this word was dysentery or diarrhoea, today it is used to describe situations which are in a state of change/transformation. Fluid situations, one might say.

Fudge. These days, fudge is either a sugary treat or an imperfect solution cobbled together at the last minute. However, in years gone by, it was used to refer to lies and nonsense.

That does not mean that we should always stand by and allow words to be hijacked and their meanings bent and distorted. Politicians and journalists are especially bad when it comes to latching onto certain buzzwords and applying them over and over to push a certain narrative or to undermine an opponent.

Here are 5 particularly egregious examples of words which have been (over-)used and abused in the past 10 years and need to be restored to their original meanings, post haste.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser attempts to sow self-doubt and confusion in their victim’s mind by denying their reality. They might do this, for example by insisting that they have not said/done certain things when they actually have. Narcissists may leverage the technique to undermine those close to them.

And I have no doubt that the world of politics has its fair share of narcissists and other miscreants who gaslight others “just for fun”.

What disturbs me is how the word is wheeled out when someone advocates a different opinion on matter XYZ than the accuser. Simply saying “I see it this way, actually” is not gaslighting. It is just saying that there are several points of view/possible approaches.

Then, it can only be interpreted as gaslighting if the accuser has such a lack of confidence in their own convictions that they feel undermined. And to be honest — that’s their problem. If you disagree — say why, argue back! Crying gaslighting is a victim’s game.

Populism

This term has been thrown around so liberally that I’m not even sure of the original meaning — or even if there’s a single, agreed meaning now.

Going by mdia outlets explicitly setting out their stall as “populist” publications, such as Sp!ked in the UK, I believe it means (something like): “politics which attempts to appeal to ordinary people who feel as though their concerns have been/are being disregarded by a (real/perceived) elite group”.

On the face of it, this is no bad thing. It is simply democracy in action. Democracy is all about everyone having a voice — men and women of any colour, age, creed, or class. Casting your vote for the candidate most aligned with your view of world and what you believe needs to be done to make the country work better is how it works.

Of course there are snake-oil salesmen out there who lie, present unrealistic solutions and whip up aggression. And that has to be called out.

The problem is how “populism” is used to describe actors who are simply challenging a status quo which isn’t working for a certain segment of the population, or articulating an opinion or approach which runs against an established/preferred narrative. I have got to thinking that the face-off isn’t “populism vs. democracy” so much as “democracy vs. technocracy”.

Amazing as it might seem, the expression of different, even wacky, points of view is a core attribute of democracy! It is sometimes frustrating and inconvenient if a solution has to be found quickly. It might mean the loss of vested interests (and the beneficiaries of those interests never take kindly to that)…but this is the price we pay for choosing to live in a democratic system.

Calling people stupid for following someone who is promising to address their legitimate concerns while dismissing those concerns as stupid, racist, unjustified etc. is not going to make their anger go away. It will just make it worse. I am consistently shocked at the inability of parties such as the Democrats in the USA or Labour in the UK to understand that this isn’t a good electoral strategy.

Guys — quit throwing around insults and buzzwords like confetti, start trying to understand WHY people are voting for Trump and Brexit and accept that at least some of their concerns are legit. Who knows — you might stand a chance of regaining their trust and their votes! Striking the word “populism” from your political vocabulary should be the first step.

Trigger

A trigger means either a part of a firearm, or to initiate/set off an event/reaction.

These days, it means anything which makes someone feel even slightly upset, offended, or reminded that other people think differently.

Trigger warnings for pictures of corpses piled high at Bergen-Belsen or of ethnic Germans tortured, raped and killed in Eastern Prussia by the advancing Red Army in 1945? Fine. A trigger warning for Thomas Hardy novels? Pull yourselves together.

Cancel

You don’t agree with the views of a particular speaker at university? Don’t go to their event — or do go and have your alternative arguments all thought out and ready to go for the open discussion. I’m sure the speaker won’t mind an intelligent and robust debate. In fact I think most would welcome it!

But stopping them speaking and conducting campaigns of harassment against them is ridiculous. The best way to counter abhorrent views isn’t to silence them. It is to allow them the freedom to be discussed — and roundly refuted. But that requires intellectual work, and the cancel mob don’t seem to really like that concept. It’s easier to shout and threaten.

You “cancel” hotel rooms, doctors’ appointments, and dates — not people. Let’s keep it that way.

Querdenker

One from the German-speaking area. Before the pandemic, a “Querdenker” (literally: “cross-thinker”) simply meant someone who was good at lateral thinking or thinking “outside of the box”.

Then, during the pandemic, a movement called the “Querdenker” was established which protested against the measures imposed by the state to control the spread of covid. Whether you agreed with the protesters or not — it was their democratic right to demonstrate and question the policies being implemented. And yet they were completely demonised and dismissed as anti-social cranks.

The polarisation of pandemic politics (which persists today, albeit in rather less acute form) has meant that calling someone a “Querdenker” is no longer a compliment for a particularly creative individual. It labels them as some kind of granny-killing anarchist. Very sad.

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Geriatric millennial writing on Medium.

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