Artillery Row

2022: What can we say?

Weaponised words can only decrease in value

When I published an essay about the weaponisation of words, a couple of years ago, I predicted that if that unpleasant trend continued, it would end in violence when those targeted by incendiary words had had enough. But a recent conversation I had with a teenager in Beijing made me realise there is a natural antidote to this increasingly nasty trend. She told me how in her school, everyone uses the smiley face emoji as an insult. Without any formal organisation or intent, her entire school community has successfully usurped that silly little universal symbol with the broad yellow grin, to make it mean exactly the opposite of what its makers intended. 

For them it’s a mark of disrespect, an angry stamp of the digital foot; a slap in the virtual face. Human nature, it seems, supersedes symbolic design. The implications of this for language are fascinating. If something as universal and ubiquitous as the smiley face, a symbol specifically designed to convey one, simple meaning, can be effectively reversed by a small community; then why would even the most weaponised words be any more impregnable?

This might not mean what you think

Perhaps I’m wrong, but from where I’m standing, the sight of huge protests across Europe by what I imagine is just a cross section of average citizens, angered at the erosion of their basic freedoms, looks perilously close to the violence I predicted. It would be easy to miss the linguistic connection. It’s one thing to be upset, even angry enough to take to the streets to protest about draconian decisions elected politicians have made when faced with a pandemic, but it’s quite another to see your entirely democratic reaction, labelled and vilified. 

That is of course, what those in the media who use the term anti-vaxxer and anyone who picks up the convenient cudgel for them on social media, are doing. Note that distinctive use of the double “x” to replace the double “c” in vaccination. We’re more familiar with this kind of word contortion from the world of advertising and commerce, where it has a long history and words are considered fair game in the pursuit of profit. But adopting that kind of practice for political reasons, is not a game. 

Not that long ago, some skilful comedian would have spun out a convoluted and genuinely funny story about why European capitals are now packed with crowds of “anti-vaxxers” who apparently have some kind of grudge against vacuum cleaners, but not today. Comedy itself has increasingly succumbed to the weaponisation of words, so that what was once a profession largely defined by games played with words, has become a dull and insipid exercise in political conformity. Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton have a lot to answer for. All those cheap, cutting edge laughs from the eighties and nineties about Thatcherism and Marxism are looking increasingly dull and more costly by the day.

Journalists and editors used to call attention to this kind of linguistic anarchy

Misspelling is only one of the techniques weaponisers employ in order to signal novelty, drive usage and single out those they seek to harm. Because be in no doubt, what anyone is doing when they weaponise words in this way, is fundamentally divisive. It’s nothing more sophisticated nor clever, than an effective way of slapping an ugly label on people whose opinions you object to. 

Deliberate coinage is another strategy but one that has a remarkable drop-out rate. A few years ago you would have found haterade or clicktivism being touted by lexicographers as new additions to the dictionary, but lexicographers it seems are no better than star gazers when it comes to making accurate predictions. Every year they add dozens of new words to their dictionaries that turn out to have the shelf life of fresh Oysters.

Haterade and clicktivism, like the more current whataboutery are more precisely conflations of existing words, rather than entirely new coinages, but weaponisers are nothing if not energetic. So the trademark word Astroturf, literally fake grass, has been hijacked and repurposed to mean any organisation that pretends to be from the grass roots, but is actually funded by vested interests. But you don’t have to invent or twist the orthography of words, to weaponise them.

More often than not what happens is that a word like racism for example, is picked up and latched onto by people who can’t resist the urge to instruct others in their behaviour. Professional people like this we term politicians, but it’s the amateurs who cause most damage, because there are many more of them and the professionals skilfully deploy them as easily led, unwitting foot soldiers.

Journalists and editors used to be the professionals we relied on to call attention to this kind of linguistic anarchy, but now they stand somewhere between the two; part political pundit; part semantic artillerymen. All of these people latch onto a word like racism with a kind of puritanical fervour; investing it not with any real world contextual meaning, in which it effectively describes human behaviour but with something akin to blasphemy. Its linguistic value as an abstract noun is usurped by its cultural value as a label. It becomes a visible badge of dishonour.

Lexicographers are no better than star gazers when it comes to making predictions

We apply the word currency to words and language when we want to signal their popularity or value but it’s a commonplace reality that scarcity increases the value of anything. This means that the value of any newly weaponised word, as a weapon, can only go down. For the small number of individuals who create or adopt any new term, their value is undoubtedly high. They get both the pleasure and satisfaction of seeing their new baby wreak havoc, but as soon as it becomes more widely used; as soon as large numbers of less specifically invested people start to use the word, it’s value begins to plummet. In the case of words like racism, diversity, equity and pretty much any word to do with gender that requires a prefix or a suffix for example; their currency has become so devalued they are now literally useless — beyond use. 

It’s like those stories you hear of nation’s hit by rampant inflation where people trundle wheelbarrows full of banknotes to the bakers, just to buy a loaf of bread. You can cart around as many of these words as you like but once linguistic inflation kicks in, real people hear nothing more than blah blah blah

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