linguistics and lexicography Love English

Pearl clutchers, snowflakes, elites and SJWs

© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesIn his linguistic review of 2016 last month, editor-in-chief Michael Rundell discussed the rise in people’s use of the word elite and showed how it ‘now seems to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean’. Lane Greene at the Economist reached a similar conclusion, writing that elite is ‘becoming a junk-bin concept used by different people to mean wildly different things’.

Though the word’s traditional meaning and connotations are positive – elite sportsperson, elite team of astronauts – nowadays it’s often used pejoratively, much as the derived words elitist and elitism usually are. Discussing elite as her word of the week, Nancy Friedman noted that while it is ‘ubiquitous and positive’ in branding, in political discourse it has ‘become a term of opprobrium’. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry presents the difference neatly.

Elite is not the only insult currently in vogue. Public debate has produced a plethora of terms – some new, some newly reworked – that have been weaponised in rhetorical battles. With the contentious Brexit vote and the US presidential debate dominating the year’s news cycles, there was ample opportunity for heated debates that spilled over into barbs and jibes (not jives).

Among the more prominent examples is the seemingly innocuous seasonal word snowflake. This gained a new sense that was recently added to Macmillan’s crowd-sourced Open Dictionary: ‘an insulting term used to criticise anyone who objects to your views or actions, implying that they are fragile and delicate’. The related phrase generation snowflake, also new to the OD, extends the criticism from the individual to the societal level.

SJW, short for social justice warrior, is another new term of opprobrium aimed at anyone who ‘holds and promotes socially progressive ideas on issues such as civil rights, animal rights, feminism, gender equality, multiculturalism, etc.’ Ideologically it’s akin to the negative use of politically correct. Macmillan’s entry for SJW includes the label ‘showing disapproval’, which adds pragmatic detail on how the term is used. SJW and snowflake both featured in Liz Potter’s review of the most notable OD additions of 2016.

On the other arm of this rhetorical axis are the slightly older phrases pearl clutcher and pearl clutching, also recent additions to the Open Dictionary. These are used to describe (and sometimes mock) prudish or traditional views, or the people who hold them. At Slate, Torie Bosch showed how pearl clutching emerged in the late 20th century and ‘went blockbuster’ in 2007. Like the adjective swivel-eyed, pearl clutching uses a vivid physical image to poke fun at opponents in a moral or political battleground. This field, unfortunately, is unlikely to be overrun with politeness any time soon.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • The term “SJW” is a textbook case of how propaganda works by blurring the distinction between what is actually meant and what might reasonably be meant.

    Reasonably, we would expect a social justice warrior to mean someone who pursues their socially progressive cause of choice with a counterproductive warrior mentality. We’ve all met people like that. In their zeal they can be quick to make enemies based on out-of-context remarks, and lack the listening skills to distinguish between the nuances of human opinion. Sometimes you can almost hear the brain going: “Goody! A social conservative! Here’s my chance!”

    (And while I scarcely speak a word of Irish I can copy and paste with the best of them, and so, to people like that, I say … ná bí ag troid liom anois … tuigfidh tú sa deireadh … thiar thall nach do namhaid mé …)

    Whereas, in practise, the term SJW is used to attack any advocate of social progress, including those who excel at a reasonable and nuanced approach — and typically it’s not the progressive who is quick to put perceived enemies into unwarranted boxes. But it’s effective as propaganda because the real target is the invisible person in the background, who hears: “You know that feminist who was rude to you once? Well, they’re all like that.”

    Of course, the sensible conclusion upon meeting social progressives with human failings is to realise the inevitability of this, given that social progressives are — almost invariably — human. To say “You are flawed, therefore your cause is flawed” is a response that makes no sense whatsoever.

  • Unfortunately, arguments (especially online) are seldom conducted with complete honesty, more often with whatever rhetorical tools come to hand, including fallacious and abusive ones. Anyone who uses insults in a debate is unlikely to adhere to reason and logic.
    It’s also worth noting that terms like SJW, snowflake, and others I didn’t mention in the post (such as deplorables) are quickly appropriated by their targets and used as a badge of pride and tribal belonging.

  • Happy New Year, Stan! Another fascinating post. I hadn’t realised “pearl clutcher” was such an old word – I’d only recently become aware of it. To me it has some affinities with “the blue-rinse brigade” – which refers to elderly women of conservative views. I like to imagine that these blue-rinsed women also wear pearls (ready to be clutched when the occasion arises). How true that SJW seems only to be used negatively, though the concept sounds quite positive to me. We have a few older words which operate in the same counterintuitive way: when someone is called a “do-gooder” or described as “well-meaning”, you might think they’re being praised (I mean, what’s wrong with doing good?), but both words are pretty disparaging.

  • Many happy returns, Michael! I was actually surprised pearl clutcher was so recent. Maybe it’s a case of semantic interference, but the phrase struck me as a vintage sort before I learned otherwise. Do-gooder is an interesting example in the SJW vein: curious, as you say, that it’s used as an insult.

  • Traditionally, a “do-gooder” is someone who superficially does “good”, but only out of a desire for public admiration. As with any insult, the description may or may not be merited.

    I once read a terrible book by a conservative religious practitioner which portrayed the term ‘do-gooder” as a tool of the Devil, a way to criticise people for doing good. All I could think of were the emphatic criticisms of do-gooders in the Bible (notably Matthew 6:2).

    I think there is a current trend toward using terms like “do-gooder” dishonestly, to attack people who are legitimately doing good. But as far as I can tell, that is a very recent development.

  • There’s also the related phrase do-good, used as both a noun and an adjective. It emerged in earnest in the 19–20thC, according to the OED, but there is a trailblazing example from back in 1654: “That they may be accounted somebody, and Do-goods.” (Richard Whitlock, Ζωοτομ́iα; or, Observations on the present manners of the English).

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