Weaponizing Words

I’m not a linguist but I like to think that I know a few things about words. I have been a teacher of dramatic arts, English literature, English grammar, and English as a Second Language. As well, I’ve done my share of acting and directing over the years. Words matter to me.

Languages naturally evolve. English, the world’s most common language, is widely altered by the cultural environment in which it is spoken. Imagine a quick linguistic trip—touching down in various parts of the UK, USA, Canada, and Australia. The variations in English grammatical structure, spelling, word usage, and vocabulary would have your head spinning. You might decide that you didn’t know English at all!

Nevertheless, adaptation in languages is normal, as is the addition of new words to our vocabulary reflecting societal changes. One example of this would be “helicopter parent”. This phrase was added to English dictionaries around 2011 to describe overprotective/highly involved parents. More recently, we have seen some modifications in the usage of pronouns related to shifting perceptions around gender. I have also observed more swearing and vulgarization of language in North America. The latter feels like a disappointing deterioration in discourse but perhaps I am just getting too old.  No matter how we feel about it, the transformative nature of languages will continue until the end of time.

Unfortunately, something deadly has seeped into this natural linguistic development. I think of it as word weaponization. Humans (I can only speak about English-speaking humans for the purposes of this blog post) have given themselves the right to mutate words into political and emotional weapons. An arrogant group of under-educated mad scientists appears to have a chokehold on our semantic future. Dictionary descriptions don’t matter to them. A perfectly innocent, positive word can become a twisted and sharpened weapon.

An excellent example of this phenomenon is the word “woke”, first popularized by the civil rights movement. According to Dictionary.com the meaning of woke is “having or marked by an active awareness of systemic injustices and prejudices, especially those involving the treatment of ethnic, racial or sexual minorities”. Another word for woke in this context might be “open-mindedness”. Word-weaponizing gremlins have retooled this word describing positive awareness into a sneer. According to them, being woke is characterized as being stupid and weak. They disparage the activism from which it sprang. As a result of this constant negative branding, being “woke” has become toxic, widely used by people who seek to demonize compassion and awareness.  

What do we do about this? Do we push back by refusing to use weaponized words? Humans are easily tempted to adopt words designed to hurt and divide. Can we stay vigilant in identifying and calling out this practice before it becomes entrenched? I hope so.

Can you identify other weaponized words? What are they? I welcome your input.