Orwell made the one big mistake in 1984 – insisting that language could indeed be changed so that bad thoughts literally couldn’t be thought. It’s an excellent literary device of course but it gets language the wrong way around. We create it in order to be able to communicate. Thus, if a language doesn’t contain the concept we wish to communicate then we invent the words to do so. Equally, if a concept does exist then a manner of communicating it will.
Which is where Nesrine Malik is going wrong here:
The terms have been subject to a successful rebranding exercise that started on the right, but then leapfrogged into the mainstream. As notions that began as efforts to redress imbalances in society, challenge embedded power structures, and organise effectively against them, the terminology of equality has since been savaged. “Woke”, a call to stay alert to injustices in society, is now almost exclusively a slur, a sneer at someone’s over-worthy and counterproductive politics.
No, it’s the concept that we’re sneering at. That the left invented a new word for it is just lovely, of course it is, an enrichment in the diversity of the language. But the meaning of it maps over a concept we were already conversant with – obtuse nutjobbery – so as the word becomes more common so the meaning converges with the already known concept.
This is as with cretin. Originally a scientific term for a certain – very low – IQ range. It quickly became an insult. So the change, perhaps to Mongoloid, which quickly became the insult ‘Mong. Through to syndrome and special and they don’t make buses short enough to take you to school.
Given that the concept exists then words will to communicate it. Change the word in some manner – by shrieking if people use the old one perhaps – and the concept will re-emerge in some other word or phrase.
Woke? It’s the same old shit that’s been shouted at us for a couple of generations now. So, the new word takes on those old connotations – the same old shit. Shifts from the approbation the coiners intend to the bored disdain the vast majority have been applying to the concept all along.
As with so much of lefty economics of course. It’s entirely possible to change the nominal price of something. It’s very difficult indeed, without changing the demand or supply of that thing, to change the real price. So with language. Inventing a new word for grumpy teenagers to shriek at their parents doesn’t change anything. As, of course, with every other generation of slang.