The Dilution of Academic Terms in Pop Culture

An Analysis of Social Media’s Role in the Overuse of Certain Words

    Normalization, romanticization, gaslighting, toxic, trigger: all of these words have something in common.  You are likely quite familiar with them, as you have likely seen them plastered over social media, being overused and diluted to the point where you are no longer sure what they mean.  These terms are often utilized out of context, used only to make the user seem smarter.  However, the meanings of these words are often changed as this happens, as the meaning becomes twisted by social media users.  In an excerpt of 1984, George Orwell references the idea that the overuse of words depletes the meaning of and the reason for using a word.  This is precisely what is happening to many academic and mental health terms.

    Academic terms that have been overtaken by social media are often used to make someone seem like they have more credibility by using bigger words.  Terms such as normalization, glorification, romanticization, and more, have been victim to this.  By falling prey to social media overuse, these words begin to lose their meaning.  Many people have realized this, and they humorously poke fun at those who overuse these terms.  The overuse of these terms simplifies their meaning, changing their true intent as words.  Social media, especially Twitter and Tiktok, have overtaken many of these terms.  Social media holds much power, but its power to devalue certain words is dangerous.  It is necessary to be careful with language.

It is not only academic terms that social media is overtaking, it is also mental health terminology.  An example of this is gaslighting, which has begun to be used as a comical term, such as within the phrase “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss.”  While many are likely using the phrase just to be funny, this is harmful because it depletes the weight of gaslighting as a form of abuse.  Gaslighting is a heavy topic, and it is not one to be joked about by people who have not suffered from it.  By continuing to use the phrase “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss,” society devalues the trauma of those who have been gaslighted.  It signifies that their suffering is simply a joke to many, as it is not treated with the careful weight that it should be treated with. 

Gaslighting is not the only mental health term that has begun to be thrown around casually. The word trigger, meaning something that upsets one’s emotional state to the point of distress, began to be used in common culture around 2018.  This desensitized people to the weight of actual triggers.  Triggers have since begun to be taken more seriously.  Trigger warnings are utilized in most places, specifically for heavy topics such as suicide, violence, etc.  The resurgence of trigger as a mental health term is good, as it draws attention back to its weight as a mental health term.

    However, many also find trigger warnings to be useless, as they are often not even used correctly.  To effectively use a trigger warning, the trigger must be signified — it is not enough to simply say “trigger warning”.  The hyperspecificity of some trigger warnings also renders them useless.  It is best to keep trigger warnings simple, short, and signified, lest they continue to lose their meaning.

This is not to say that conversations surrounding mental health themselves should not be normalized. It is certainly important to normalize conversations regarding mental health struggles and mental illness, allowing for people to have a safe space to heal. However, it is necessary to be careful regarding the language being utilized, and ensuring that psychological terms are used correctly, with the correct connotations. To act otherwise is to deplete their meaning, lightening the weight that comes along with discussions of mental health.

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