How The Evolution Of Language Is Harming Our Ability To Communicate

A new study published in The Philosophical Quarterly has revealed that our approach to words like ‘woke’ and ‘gaslighting’ are harming our relationship with language, and with one another.

The paper outlines that words such as ‘woke’, ‘depression’, ‘gaslighting’ and ‘emotional labour’ have all deviated from their original meanings in recent years and left us disarmed without specific words to describe useful concepts.

Dr Robert Morgan – a Lecturer and Consultant at the University of Leeds’s Interdisciplinary Ethics Applied (IDEA) Centre – calls the phenomenon ‘hermeneutical disarmament’.

But, what does this really mean, and how are we harming our language by using words a little deviated from their original definitions?

Dr Morgan highlighted three words and phrases that he believes embody this exact issue.

How we misunderstand and misuse the word ‘woke’

Lead Belly, who used the phrase ‘stay woke’ in a 1930s protest song.
Lead Belly, who used the phrase ‘stay woke’ in a 1930s protest song. Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin migrant workers collection (AFC 1985/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Dr Morgan explained: “The phrase ‘stay woke’ was used by Blues singer Lead Belly in the 1930s as a warning to fellow African Americans to stay alert when travelling through more dangerous parts of the USA.

“With a specific function of communicating danger in the Jim Crow era, ‘woke’ was an important and useful word.”

However, he warned, the word has now gone through so much change. Once used to highlight racial injustice and then as a catch-all for progressiveness, the term is now used in a disparaging way by right-wing commentators.

According to the paper, people are now disarmed by a word that was originally used for safety.

How we moved away from the original meaning of the word ‘gaslighting’

Dr Morgan said: ”‘Gaslighting’ originally referred to a very specific type of emotional abuse, coming from the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton.

“In the play, a husband tries to convince his wife that the dimming gas lights in their house are figments of her imagination in a manipulative effort to change her perception of reality.”

But now, ‘gaslight’ is being used much more generally to mean ‘lying’ or ‘misleading’ in political, journalistic and social media discourse, so people experiencing a specific type of abuse may not be able to identify or understand it as easily.

Dr Morgan warned that we’ve somewhat diluted the meaning of the word ‘gaslighting’ by conflating it with lying or misleading in political, journalistic and social media discourse.

He warned that people who are subject to this kind of abuse may not be able to identify it because of this.

How we have completely lost sight of the original meaning of ‘emotional labour’

Emotional labour’ was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the 1980s to describe the extra effort that service workers such as waiters use to manage their emotions to keep customers comfortable.

However, ‘emotional labour’ has since been co-opted on social media to refer to difficult tasks that typically fall more on women than men – such as housework and managing social relationships.

Dr Morgan said: “Emotional labour was another useful phrase, but the worry is that when we start using it in this really broad way to mean lots of different things, we now don’t have a phrase to refer to that original phenomenon.

“For example, if you’re a barista and you feel exhausted after a day of being expected to smile at every customer, you might be experiencing the downfalls of emotional labour in its original sense, but no longer be able to express this to your colleagues or even identify it.”

Dr Morgan said: “People who are more influential when it comes to language change, such as journalists and social media influencers, should be careful about the way they’re using these technical terms.”

The changing of words isn’t always a bad thing

While the examples provided by Dr Morgan do highlight a concerning climate in language, he assures that it can be a good thing, too.

He said  that there are positive cases of this phenomenon, where malicious actors can be ‘disarmed’ of the language they use to spread hate.

One example of this is ‘queer’, which has been a disparaging term towards members of the LGBTQ+ community in the past. As the word is reclaimed by the community, it becomes less useful for those who would use it pejoratively.