Talky Tuesday: Navigating Language in a leaky boat, part 1

How certain terms that leaked out of academia have been misinterpreted by laypeople, making a giant mess of it.

There’s kind of an interesting problem going on in language nowadays, particularly in English speaking countries. But before I get into it specifically, I want you to try to think of any highly-jargoned language that has also managed to sneak out into common usage.

Probably the only common ones are those that people interact with regularly. For example, if you’ve ever gotten a loan or started a bank account, then you probably know APR. And if you got that loan to buy a car, then you probably paid very close attention to the EPA estimates for MPG on the make and model you chose.

If you’ve ever seriously tried to lose weight or bulk up at the gym, then you know BMI and what it stands for, as well as terms like keto, intermittent fasting, and leg day. And if you follow the news, then you probably know the meaning of terms like WaPo, the Squad, lame duck, recall, primary, and so on.

But, again, these are jargon terms that leak out because they affect a lot of people not in a particular profession, or at least become common in consumer-facing areas.

Let’s try some expressions from more specialized fields. Do ROI, CPM, ROS, total spend, sunk cost, Q score, persona, platforming, and soft launch mean anything to you?

What about POS display, header, end-cap, margin, up-sell, logistics chain, loss leader, and loss prevention team?

Table read, standards and practices, above the line, net points (aka “nyet points”), forced call, closed set, clearances, yellow draft, location, UPM, double up pay, show-runner.

Or these: Part A, Part B, supplemental plan, effective date, qualifying event, open enrollment, Part D penalty.

Unless you’ve worked in marketing, retail, TV production, or Medicare insurance, you probably won’t recognize many or any of these.

Okay, one more quiz. How many of these terms do you know the meaning of?

Triggered, gender neutral, non-binary, pronouns, safe space, critical race theory.

If you said you know the meaning of each of them but you haven’t been working in academia for at least a decade, then congratulations. Your understanding of each of these words is probably completely wrong.

That’s because none of them were created for muggles but, rather, were meant as terms to be kept within the field in order to teach the teachers how to be more aware and sensitive toward their students. Each one is very specifically defined and far too complicated and nuanced for the general public.

And yet… they leaked out, most likely via sloppy use of them in university settings, to be later parroted back to parents or blabbed to the media by students disgruntled over that “C” they got because they only showed up for four classes during the entire term.

Side note: So… if one can be disgruntled, can one ever be gruntled? I have the same question about the opposite of nonplused, actually.

But back to the subject… these academic terms leaked out into the wild, were plastered all over the media and completely misinterpreted. Let’s look at how they have been.

Triggered

Nowadays, people on both sides of the political spectrum misuse this word, whether it’s coming from the left to call out a Karen who has a meltdown at the slightest pushback on her white privilege or coming from the right when someone on the left has anything bad to say about any prominent Republican. Well, okay, one of them in particular.

However, this was not the intended use of the word. It very specifically refers to victims of PTSD, and the kind of language, event, or stimulus that will trigger a flashback to that traumatic episode.

For example, a veteran who was traumatized when they saw their best friends and squad members blown apart by an IED that they survived might be triggered to relive that event by loud noises, like a car backfiring, thunder, or fireworks, the smell of burnt gunpowder, or the sight of blood or the butcher counter in a grocery store.

A child who was sexually molested by a trusted family member might be triggered by smelling someone wearing the same cologne, or a certain sequence of words, or by being touched (even innocently) in a certain place, like someone taking their elbow to guide them.

A woman who was raped by some random stranger might be triggered by suddenly realizing that a man is walking behind her in the same direction on the sidewalk, or by any of a number of sounds and smells, or by other random jackasses on the street telling her to smile or commenting on how pretty she is.

And so on.

The point is that trauma imprints people — severely — and this damage hadn’t really been addressed until recently.

PTSD.

Post-traumatic shock syndrome. That’s the modern term, which also came out of academia, and while most people seem to associate it with veterans, it’s not limited to them. Survivors of rapes, sexual assault, assault in general, natural disasters, and so on, can all suffer from it.

Over its history, PTSD was called other things: shell shock, soldier’s heart, combat fatigue or war neurosis. Yeah, kind of obvious that none of those really apply to people who were traumatized outside of war zones.

Eventually, the definition was expanded by the American Psychiatric Association in the 1980s, at which point all the other sufferers were recognized, and the idea of a triggering event was defined.

But… a trigger does not refer to something trivial like a Karen melting down over her favorite Starbucks not having Pumpkin Spice everything ready to go at opening on October 1, nor does it apply to Young Debbie Democrat freaking out over the latest trolling tweet from the two stupidest Republican members of Congress — and you know who I mean.

Neither of those events is going to send Karen or Debbie into a panic attack that sends them fleeing the room. Neither one is going to make it difficult for them to breathe, or to trust anyone around them. In short, neither one is going to bring back a trauma that their privileged asses never experienced.

Which is why the term “triggered” should have been left in academia, where people know how to use it.

Safe space

Another term that has been misused and abused, the idea behind safe spaces originally referred to children on the spectrum, and how to teach them. In universities, it eventually expanded to on-campus rooms and professors’ offices where BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people were welcome to come and be free of abuse and bigotry — but the real function of those spaces was ideally to teach those students to go out into the world with no need for safe spaces.

Irony alert: This term is often bandied about by conservatives to imply that leftists are little weaklings, but I don’t recall the existence of safe spaces IRL among my leftist friends. Well, not officially mandated ones, anyway. We tend to create our own safe spaces, and then the Trumpeteers are too afraid to even approach, because there are so many more of us than them.

“Safe space” indicates a person or place with no value judgments of an individual, as well as respect for their needs — for example, special showings of movies for children on the spectrum with lowered volume and reduced stimulation are safe spaces.

So are straight LGBTQ+ allies who welcome people from those groups into their homes and lives without judgement, treating them just like everyone else.

Gender neutral

Academically, this is strictly aimed at removing gendered language in general, but without really drawing attention to it. It involves things like replacing terms like “waiter” and “waitress” with “server,” and so on, and writing textbooks using non-gendered pronouns, like they and them.

And yes, those pronouns have been singular since the 14th century, so fake language purists who don’t know what they’re talking about can just STFU.

However, in muggle minds, this gets conflated with gender neutral as a term for restrooms, and the less enlightened somehow twist this into “OMG — men in dresses going into the girls’ room to rape our daughters!”

I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling.

This, of course, couldn’t be farther from the truth.

But settle your jets, transphobes. Gender neutral only refers to language, not restrooms, because humans are definitely not gender neutral. That’s part of the whole reason for people defining their pronouns in the first place — because we need to.

And in not choosing between either, “non-binary” is still a gender choice, so calling a non-binary person “gender neutral” is still showing them a lot of disrespect. “Non-binary” just means “not limited to two options.” It most certainly does not mean, “No options chosen.”

Latinx

Here’s a case where academia came up with a term that actually pissed off the community it was aimed at. Why? Simply because Latin (or Romance) languages — Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian — are gendered. All of them have two linguistic genders except Romanian, which has three.

And then along comes “latinx,” which, unfortunately, comes from mostly privileged white academics, and Latinos have a problem with that. For one thing, it erases the genders in the Spanish and Portuguese languages, but really does it as a callback to colonialization.

Translation: White, western Europeans telling all the brown people in the Americas what they should call themselves.

And there are better ways to do this without angloparlantes creating an unpronounceable term into Spanish — latin-eks? Latinequis? Nah…

Latin@ is a kind of typographic possibility because it puts to “o” and “a” endings into one character but, again, how do you pronounce it? Latinao? Latinhão in Portuguese?

Hopefully never “Latinat.” And remember that “at” in Spanish is “a,” so we wind up back at the female term trying to encompass everyone, which is exactly the opposite of how grammatical genders in these languages work.

The most organic terms possible? Latine and latinos.

The former is a generally accepted gender-neutral ending for Spanish nouns. The latter is the plural and gender-neutral term that indicates there are a shitload of girls but at least one boy. Sexist as fuck? Oh, sure. But at least more respectful of the colonial overtones of all that other shit.

Although go for the gender-neutral Latista if you really have las pelotas for it. Él es un latista; ella es una latista.  

Pelotas — balls. And yes, those kinds of balls, and yet their gender is feminine. Go figure.

Not that “latinx” isn’t used by a number of Latinos in the U.S., but a lot of them are several generations removed from being immigrants, so the term doesn’t strike them the same way that it would someone who is first generation or an immigrant, or who lives in a Spanish-speaking country in the Americas.

But, again, as with pronouns — it’s up to the individual to decide what term they want to apply to themselves, and no one’s place to tell them what they can or can’t call themselves — and especially not the place of someone who does not belong to the group.

The closest my tall, white ass gets is the dash of Basque that slipped into my DNA at some point, but they’re no relation to any Latinos, and the “close” part is literally because the Basque homeland is jammed in between France and Spain.

Again, this got a bit long for one piece, so come back next week for the rest of these misunderstood words.

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