“I had someone tell me the other day that the cashier at Trader Joe’s ‘loved to bomb’ them,” said Amanda Montell, a language writer and author of the book “Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism.” “And like, no, it’s not love bombing.”
The term “semantic creep” has been used to describe how the meaning of words changes over time. What we see today, according to psychologist Nick Haslam, a professor at the University of Melbourne, could be called “trauma creep” – when the language of the clinical, or at least the clinically-adjacent, is used to refer to an increasingly expansive set of everyday experiences.
Under our collective embrace of such a language, Mr Haslam argues, is in fact a better understanding – and in turn sensitivity – of the psychological aspects of harm. Which, to be clear, can be a good thing. “We call bad behavior that was previously tolerated and identify injuries that were previously ignored,” he said.
The word “trauma” comes from the ancient Greeks who defined it as physical injury. And while the term is still used to describe physical harm, today it is more commonly expressed in the context of the emotional. That shift was critical in the 1990s and early 2000s to legitimize the concept of domestic abuse, said sociologist Paige Sweet, author of “The Politics of Surviving” – and even helped shelters obtain government resources because it “medicinalized” concept.
But as words gain useful new meanings, they can also lose precision over time.
“Gaslighting” is now “thrown out every time someone’s perception of something is challenged,” said Shantel Gabrielal Buggs, a sociologist at Florida State University. “Emotional work” was once used to refer to a burden in the workplace; today it is a collective term for unpleasant household chores.
And #Traumatok, a real-world TikTok site with nearly 600 million views, teaches us that struggling with decision-making, overachievement, or the inability to stop rolling may not just be products of indecision, drive, or boredom, but “trauma response. . ” Meanwhile, the public broadcast of our personal traumas – sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders, and so on – has become so ubiquitous that it now has a name: “trauma dumping.” Seriously, what’s going on?
The backdrop for all of this, of course, is the real, collective “trauma age” we all live through. Many things are really not good. When everything feels so awful, then why should not our speech patterns be shaped by these extremes? The Trump years, for example, led to the emergence of “gaslighter” instead of “liars” because the latter seemed “just not strong enough anymore,” Ms. Montell said. Discussions about systemic racism and inequality have helped to initiate concepts such as “generational trauma” or the trauma of racism or the way trauma is expressed in the body, and such awareness has helped to erode the stigma surrounding talking about such issues. (We can proudly thank our therapists at the Emmys!)