3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

I remember two things about the Smurfs -- one is that the cat had a great name (Azrael), and the other is that they used the word "smurf" for everything.

My Twitter/forum avatar is actually a combination of Smurfs Azrael
and Batman Azrael. Get it? Yeah, nobody does.

It was actually a running joke. Like, they would tell humans that "the smurf smurfed the other Smurfs" in order to say that someone had kidnapped the other Smurfs, which made absolutely no sense to the humans, and the other Smurfs I assume eventually starved to death in captivity.

It's easy to just think the Smurfs are dumb, because they are, but we've done the same thing to a lot of our most popular words. We've used them to mean so many different things that other people no longer have any idea what that combination of letters means when we use it. That's why Rich Mullins' song "Awesome God" was once about an infinite and terrifying being unleashing his power to create and rule the universe, and is now sung in youth groups everywhere as a dated '80s spin on how totally radical God is, bro.

Here are some other words we have bludgeoned the meaning out of.

#3. Hate

Getty source images

The word "hate" has somehow become an umbrella term for racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and any type of wrong attitude toward a group of people. It's very handy to replace a really long list with a four-letter word, like how I halve the time it takes to make a grocery list by just writing "food."

But just like some of the things I buy at the supermarket are not food by any definition of the word (Swiffers, toilet paper, Hot Pockets), a lot of these wrong attitudes don't involve the emotion we normally think of as "hate." "Hate" sounds like neo-Nazis stockpiling ammo and posting all-caps rants about blacks and Jews on, uh, Pinterest, or wherever neo-Nazis hang out (not a neo-Nazi expert).

I was joking, but, uh ...

Meanwhile, "hate groups" are groups whose sole purpose is to be against some other group, like they are so obsessed with being against gays or something that they have formed a club to spend all their spare time figuring out how to stop them.

This level of anger and obsession is what most people think of when you talk about "hate," and most racists or sexists or whatever do not feel that emotion. I think it's pretty obvious that most of the racism in this country is carried out by people who don't think they're racist, which is why it was so bizarre that Brad Paisley's "Accidental Racist" song implies that unintentional racism is some unusual kind of racism people need to be made aware of, instead of pretty much being the official racism of America.

Most of what's going on is better described as ignorance, which may sound like letting people off the hook or going easy on the racists. But ignorance, and especially willful ignorance (which accounts for maybe most cases) can be more damaging and even harder to stop than hate, because it's so evasive. You can't change a person's idea if you can't get them to admit they have it.

"Could you please stop staring at my neck?"
"Why, I don't know what you could be talking about!"

And people will cling very hard to ignorance of certain facts, because they're afraid if they admit something is unjust and their group has got the long end of the stick, they are going to have to give something up. Sometimes the thing they have to give up is not a really big deal, like not using a certain word. Sometimes they don't have to give up anything at all, because righting the injustice helps everybody. But, hey, why take chances? It's safest not to give an inch.

Because they think that Step 1 is them admitting there is an injustice, which doesn't sound so bad, but then you have a secret Step 2 where you take things away from them, and then more secret steps later where you start setting yourself up above them. So that's why they won't admit real obvious things, like that women getting raped is a big problem. It's not about admitting the one fact, it's about the other secret things they know you're planning to steal from them after they admit it.

"I know you're saying you just want me to take your assault seriously, but what you're secretly trying
to do is put all men in a concentration camp and reproduce by parthenogenesis."

Also, grouping these issues together under an umbrella word makes it sound like they're all caused by the same thing, like if you cure a person's sexism they also won't be suspicious of immigrants anymore. It makes people think that a vague, blanket call for "acceptance" is a panacea for racism, misogyny, sectarianism, xenophobia, homophobia, discrimination against the disabled, and what have you. Unfortunately, the truth is that you have to address misconceptions of each group one by one, which is a much longer and more tedious slog than making vague Facebook posts about how hate is such a terrible disease -- but in the end, the slog is far more productive.

The other problem with the umbrella word is that the "haters" keep trying to sneak under the umbrella themselves, calling denunciation of white supremacists "hate speech," leading to very confusing arguments. Take away the umbrella and they have to invent ridiculous terms like "reverse racism," which is a lot funnier to watch a person try to take seriously.

#2. Victim


At first glance, "victim" seems like a pretty simple word. It's someone that something bad has happened to. But society can never leave a simple word alone. We've added two implied meanings to it, both of which turn conversations into clusterfucks left and right.

One is "fake victim." You've probably heard the phrase "she just wants to be a victim." This is dumb if you take the surface definition of the word, because who would want something bad to happen to them? But they're actually using the word to mean "fake victim." They're saying this person wants to be considered a victim even though nothing bad has happened to her, in order to get sympathy.

Nobody, man or woman, deserves to be compared to a professional soccer player.

People complain about "a culture of victimhood" and "victimization" until it sounds like there's more fake victims than real victims out there. Is there really an epidemic of people feeling sorry for themselves? Maybe. I don't know. But there sure is an epidemic of complaining about it, to the point that there is no way of saying someone is "the real victim" in a situation without sounding sarcastic or corny. It really makes it hard to draw attention to people who are truly getting screwed over.

The other terrible meaning we've added to the word is "just a victim." Since a victim is an object of an action (something bad was done to you), there's an implied passivity. If you're "just a victim," then you're just a person that gets things done to you. A "victim" by this definition doesn't fight back, or move on, or heal -- they just sit there and suffer.

That's why rape survivors often call themselves survivors instead of victims, because "victim" has been saddled with the unfortunate baggage of meanings like "coward" or "weakling" and the implication that they're too passive to fight for justice or healing or whatever their next step is.

"Well, you're not being hit by a car RIGHT NOW, are you? It's in the past. Stop feeling sorry for yourself."

And "survivor" works in that case, but in general it sucks that you can't even use the precise word meant to describe terrible things happening to a person without at least one listener taking away the implication that the "victim" is either not trying hard enough or is pretending for sympathy.

For some reason, it has this effect only if the damage to the victim isn't immediately visible. I don't think anyone's ever heard about a burn victim and immediately suspected them of exaggerating or said to them, "Stop sitting there being all burned."

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Christina H

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