The Tyranny of Terrible Terms

Lots of people complain about jargon in academia.  I tend to focus on conceptual stretching–that a term gets used to apply to more and more stuff so that it loses its essence.  My favorite example is imperialism–what is and is not imperialist?  Damned if I know.

I had a sudden realization when reading this piece that has a similar take on neo-liberalism what is a larger dynamic that separates useful phrases embodying bounded concepts from overly stretched labels that have lost their meaning: when a word is hurled as an insult by one set of intellectuals at others, the term has lost its value.

I am not sure what neo-liberal means because it already had different meanings depending on whether one was talking about International Relations Theory, economic policy, and whatever else.  But now it is a way to label folks with whom one disagrees.  And poof, whatever use of the concept is gone.

Another kind of example is how the “War on Poverty” and such has now become the war on everything, where it is mostly value-less (war on Christmas).

What are other examples of formerly useful words/concepts that gone down this path from useful to insult to meaningless?

By Steve Saideman

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One thought on “The Tyranny of Terrible Terms

  1. Pingback: More Terrible Terms | Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

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