Concept creep is the tendency for words or concepts to be used in ever-expanding contexts. Often, concept creep can become expansive to the point where the original meaning of the word is obscured or violated.
Today, the left is commonly associated with concept creep – and for good reason. In several respects, liberals have begun to employ words so expansively that the word’s original meaning is lost. The most remarkable and ironic example relates to the word “literal.”
The Concept Creep of “Literally”
Literal, according to Oxford, means “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory,” “free from exaggeration or distortion.” Yet, commonly, the word literal is being used to describe things that are not literal, and is instead used to describe things with exaggeration or distortion. I.e., “I literally can’t,” when you literally can. Or, “She literally said that,” when she literally did not. You get the idea. The expansion of the word “literal,” to apply to situations that are the exact inverse of literal, is perhaps the most ironic and disorienting example of concept creep, yet other examples may be more profound and consequential. The concept creep of “trauma” for example.
The Concept Creep of “Trauma”
For most of the noun’s use, “trauma” was reserved for descriptions of physical injuries, (i.e., “the patient’s skull was fractured from blunt force trauma,”) or, per Oxford, “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” What qualified as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience was reserved to the most distressing and disturbing experiences, like the death of a child, or watching a loved one die, or experiencing combat.
Gradually, however, trauma has been used in an increasingly expansive set of circumstances. Divorce, estrangement, familial discord all qualify as traumatic now – and all disruptive and highly stressful, but not beyond the scope of what a person can expect to experience in their life.
Yet the concept creep of “trauma” didn’t stop there, expanding to include slights as insignificant as being cussed out, or having someone disagreeing with you in class (i.e., “My Con Law class was traumatizing because John Doe didn’t believe the 14th Amendment guaranteed a right to abortion”). Clearly, the concept of “trauma” has expanded to the point where the original meaning is lost entirely. Relatedly, simultaneously, the concept of violence has also expanded, in a way that has political ramifications.
The Concept Creep of “Violence”
According to Oxford, “violence” is the “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” Let me emphasize: violence involves physical force. So, violence, by definition, cannot be verbal. Yet, increasingly, violence is being used to describe verbiage. And increasingly, presidential candidate Donald Trump is being accused of violence. Take yesterday’s NBC News article, ‘Trump ramps up violent rhetoric,’ for example. Or today’s New York Times article, ‘As Trump’s Legal Woes Have Escalated, So Have His Violent Remarks.’
Remember, words cannot, by definition, be violent.
The NBC article begins: “Former President Donald Trump is lashing out at political and legal foes in increasingly violent terms as his campaign to return to office accelerates.” Examples, according to the article, include suggesting that Mark Milley’s behavior would have gotten him executed in a different government; that Letitia James is “corrupt and racist,”; mocking Nancy Pelosi’s husband.
Now, Trump may be uncouth. And Trump may be unfit for the office of the presidency. And Trump may be unsettlingly comfortable with the use of violence as a political tool. But writing an article about Trump using violent terms is an example of modern concept creep, in the present case, an example that seems to confuse the very meaning of the word violent.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor and opinion writer at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.
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