In 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.Email this Post