Pop Words and Their Many Masters

One of my ongoing concerns has been what words to use to characterize the subjects of my posts. When I speak of the right, are they “alt-right” or “white supremacists,” as I’m reliably informed by the left? And when I speak of the left, are they “SJWs,” “woke” or “progressives”? On the one hand, none of these words have sufficiently defined meanings to preclude the requisite wiggle room to disclaim membership. On the other hand, what starts out as a badge of honor for one side morphed into a pejorative when seized upon by the other.

I remember someone dismissing a post because I used the phrase SJW, which obviously meant I was some right wingnut. So what word or phrase should I use? Berny Belvedere parses the dilemma at Arc Digital.

A few months back, we ran a sharp piece by Nathan Allebach on the difference between liberals and leftists. He started his article with a brief meditation on language:

Nothing fuels online discourse like fights over language. New terms will popularize in a subculture then trickle into the zeitgeist until they lose universal meaning, if it was ever there to begin with. Terminology such as “weaponize,” “virtue signal,” “identity politics,” “moral panic,” “bad faith,” and “cancel culture” gets diffused so widely and unsystematically that it feels impossible to pin down what someone means without a litany of qualifiers and caveats.

Allebach describes how terms start out in a particular subculture only to lose their capacity to convey a shared meaning once they graduate into discourse ubiquity.

He’s right, this often happens—and it’s worth wondering why. Why do terms like cancel culture exhibit “meaning leak” as they travel from the underground and into prominence? How come virtue signal starts off as a meaningful concept but eventually loses its way?

Is this like the “n-word,” where a black person can use it but a white person can’t? Or is this different, a phrase sent out into the wild where its meaning becomes so diffuse by wider use?

The terms don’t forfeit their coherence merely by being widely used—they lose it on account of being widely used in a particular context: the context of political contestation.

What happens is the broader discourse, being basically an arena of ideological conflict, a theater for the forever culture war, provides warring factions an opportunity to superimpose their preferred meaning onto terms in a way that suits their objectives.

Berny is on to something. A descriptor that’s valid at its positive start that explodes in the hands of the enemy when its used in a negative way in the “context of political contestation.” When an “SJW” speaks of “woke,” he means the word in its most wonderful sense, a word of enlightenment and righteousness. In the enemy’s hands, it sounds like a curse.

None of this is mysterious or all that deep. It’s obvious that in an ongoing discourse arena of political contestation, the terms that one group uses to advance its positions (“the other side is all about identity politics”) get challenged and even repurposed against them. Again, this is expected.

Indeed. Orwell explained this in his seminal essay, Politics and the English Language.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracysocialismfreedompatrioticrealisticjustice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

Even Oxford math don Charles Lutwidge Dodgson nailed it.

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

Contrary to the demands of sensitive readers, I can only use words for the purposes I use them, and can’t reinvent my lexicon to suit the personal sensibility of every random reader. You don’t have to like my word choices in the heat of battle, but Humpty had a point, “which is to be master”? As long as it conveys the idea, must there be some tacit agreement on the precise definition?

The more important question is whose definition is right—and for that, like always, you’ve got to look at the reasons and arguments put forward by each side for their preferred conceptualizations.

Berny has a point, but it falls short of one pervasive problem: there is no precise definition of the many vague words and phrases that arise with alacrity these days. Cancel culture? Identity politics? Virtue signalling? Each conveys a general idea, but without the defined parameters that  distinguish “right” definitions from wrong. Still, without words to convey ideas, they elude discussion and criticism. Me and Humpty ain’t gonna play that game.

30 thoughts on “Pop Words and Their Many Masters

  1. Jake

    Good for you! As I always say: Why should I use accurate words when there are so many broadly misunderstood that are bound to offend someone available?

    1. PseudonymousKid

      Because if you take your rule to the extreme we’ll be reduced to grunting at each other, but that too would be offensive because male grunts are deeper. The meaning of words is determined by their use, Jake. That’s why I want you to know something about what my dear friend, Ludwig, thought. You shouldn’t be ceding ground to idiots who misunderstand your more extensive vocabulary. That’s not how you win the language games we play.

      This is as nice as I can be. It was difficult, but I am trying.

        1. PseudonymousKid

          Not a good start, it’s “Tractatus”. I wouldn’t actually recommend diving right in without some background work first, and the ideas I referenced come from his later work anyway. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a nice online source to find even more things to read and try to understand. I’d write more, but this is off topic and I wouldn’t dare try to make this into philosophy SJ. Please excuse the book club discussion.

      1. Guitardave

        ” The meaning of words is determined by their use. ”

        So if three people use the same word and each person has their own different meaning , you end up with what?
        Will I have to ask for each persons definition of each word they say?
        And then what?
        Do I again ask them for the definition of each word they used in the defining of each word they said when defining the first set of words? (Lather, rinse, repeat.)

        I’m such a simpleton. I thought words had consensus definitions so we could communicate and understand each other.
        But, upon further consideration, it may be a good thing to not understand the utter bullshit some people spew.

        1. PseudonymousKid

          You should probably stay in the kiddie pool with your music vids. I hate seeing you struggle like this and this isn’t even the complicated part.

          Words do have definitions or else I wouldn’t be able to tell you that words have definitions, GD. How we who supposedly speak the same language arrive at those definitions is what I’m talking about. I say we do that by actually using the words over time. Not me, not you, but all of us in the Anglosphere together all of the time.

          So when you call yourself a “simpleton” you’re doing your part in defining that word. In this context it means someone so dumb as to write what you did. Thanks for your contribution to the language. Does this help?

            1. PseudonymousKid

              But, but, someone said something wrong on the internet! I was tempted to try to post my own vid, but I don’t know how, it’s against the rules, and my taste sucks.

          1. Guitardave

            “Does this help?”

            Oh yes, yes!
            You’ve totally cured me of all the misconceptions I’ve ever entertained.
            Thank you very much for those kind and enlightening words.

    2. SHG Post author

      Don’t let PK harsh your mellow, Jake. I don’t think anyone but you could have pulled off this comment with such credibility.

    3. LY

      I personally prefer to use offensive words that are perfectly understood by the recipient, then there is absolutely no misunderstanding of my intended insult. Just go for the most widely offensive ones available.

      Bless your heart….

  2. Hal

    You know Humpty Dumpty was pushed, right?

    I keep trying to join Paranoids Anonymous… but they won’t tell me where they meet.

    1. Hunting Guy


      Humpty wasn’t an egg. There is no description of him. The illustrations came later when the nursery rhymes were compiled in books.

  3. PseudonymousKid

    Pops, lay off the McWhorter for a bit, he’s getting to you. Determining the meaning of some words is a constant battle because they are so contentious. If only everyone would agree with me and my definitions which are firmly grounded in historical materialism. But they don’t and I live to fight another day. If we don’t actually use language to communicate and all act as Humpty-Dumpty, then language doesn’t work. So keep writing, please. It’s important.

    1. SHG Post author

      It occurs to me that if definitions are in a constant state of flux, I may never be right, but I can never be wrong.

        1. Guitardave

          …and thank you too.

          (I spent 15+ minutes this morning on searching that very title and got nothing but crap and bible songs. Fucking you tube algos, and the idiots that feed them, suck. GIGO strikes again.)

  4. Anonymous Coward

    I get the impression that many of these terms are deliberately left vague and rapidly changeable because it serves the purpose of the “woke” to be able to Motte and Bailey by shifting meaning or just having constantly shifting terminology as a elite exclusion mechanism. SHG actually discussed much of this in the October 3 2020 SJ post on Wokese.

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