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‘Woke’ and ‘gaslight’ don’t mean what you think they do – here’s why that’s a problem

Words and phrases change their meaning often as language evolves.

In the past, something was “awful” if it was amazing (think “awesome” or “awe-inspiring”). A “naughty” person was poor rather than poorly behaved.

Only museum exhibitions could be curated, certainly not wardrobes, flats or social media pages. “Bimbo” meant “reckless man”, but is now a sexist word for a young woman, complicated by recent attempts to “reclaim” the term.

Some of these changes are benign, some more troubling. One worry is that when we have a precise term for something, and the meaning of this term changes, we might find ourselves unable to understand or communicate about whatever that thing is. To see why, it’s worth looking at three examples.

It’s difficult to say what “woke” means. It’s used variously as a positive, neutral or negative word for someone who has socially liberal views, with a lot of disagreement about which views count. But it used to mean something much more precise.

In the wake of the 1931 arrest of the Scottsboro Nine in the racially segregated US, blues singer Lead Belly told fellow African-Americans travelling through the area to “stay woke”, warning them to be aware of the pervasive threat of violent racism. From there, the term meant “alertness to racist injustice”.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined “emotional labour” to mean the work that a person does in managing their own emotional state to provide a particular experience to others. For example, a waiter who remains friendly towards a rude patron performs emotional labour.

It is now used much more broadly. Housework, supporting friends and organising social occasions have all been called “emotional labour”. A quick search of TikTok reveals how widely emotional labour is used in ways that depart from what Hochschild meant.

Another word that is commonly used these days is “gaslighting”. Based on the events of the play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton, “gaslighting” is a specific kind of abuse whereby someone is made to doubt their own ability to know about the world.

One person makes another doubt that what they perceive or remember is real to manipulate them. More recently, it is used to mean any kind of lying or disagreeing with someone.

Where’s the harm?

Language is a tool we use to understand and communicate the world. When we don’t have the words for something, it is difficult or impossible to properly understand that thing.

As an example, the philosopher Miranda Fricker discusses the experience of Wendy Sanford. Sanford experienced postpartum depression following the birth of her son, but didn’t have the language to describe what she was going through. When she discovered the term “postpartum depression”, she came to understand her experience as a medical condition, where previously she had mistakenly understood it as a personal failing.

A mother cowers over her child's crib.
The term ‘post-partum depression’ made a feeling mothers had been struggling with more solid and easier to communicate. Glinskaja Olga/Shutterstock

When precise terms change their meaning, we lose a tool for understanding and communicating about an idea or experience because the words that previously helped us to do this are no longer suitable. In my research, I call this process “hermeneutical disarmament”.

When “woke” just means “socially liberal”, Black speakers lose an effective way to communicate about being self-protectively aware of racist injustice. Simply talking about “alertness to injustice” will not do either. “Woke” communicates alertness to injustice as gaining consciousness, a radical change in a person’s perspective on the world.

Hochschild describes meeting workers who tell her that her research makes them feel seen, bringing to light an experience that was previously “invisible” by giving it a name. Changes to the meaning of “emotional labour” undermine these gains.

A waiter who comes across the phrase “emotional labour” as meaning any emotionally draining work usually performed by women misses out on a tool for understanding the effort that she puts into managing her own emotional state for her a job.

When “gaslighting” just means “lying”, we lose a tool for talking about this specific form of abuse. This could have serious implications for victims of this abuse, and for practitioners and activists working in this area.

Hermeneutical disarmament looks straightforwardly bad. However, it is sometimes desirable to change our language.

Consider changes to the meaning of “marriage”. Before this legal status is extended to same-sex couples, the term “marriage” refers to a relationship that is highly esteemed but exclusively heterosexual.

When same-sex marriage is legalised, we lose a term that presents heterosexual committed relationships as somehow superior to other committed romantic relationships. This represents a favourable linguistic change for people who are unjustly discriminated against.

Changes to language are hard to predict and even harder to control. So, it’s difficult to say what we can do to guard against the harmful instances.

But some people do have more influence than others over the way that language develops. Journalists who write for a large audience and influential figures on social media (“influencers”) can introduce specialist terms to their readership, staying true to their original meaning or proposing a new definition.

When using the kind of precise terminology that matters here, journalists, social media influencers, and so on, should take care to use these terms by accurately representing their original meanings.

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