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Language games create language realities
Are things normal again? I can’t tell. A friend and I used to have an inside joke, early on during the pandemic: “Every day is a new reality.” It still feels like that. You can chart the new realities with the new language that filters into everyday life.
We started with “just the flu” at the start of 2020. That was wishful thinking. Then we moved on to “bend the curve,” when we were asked to “shelter in place”—a less frightening phrase than the more sever terminology we would use later: “quarantine” and “lockdown.” (Not that these terms were always used precisely, I had to explain to my mother that visiting the mountains every weekend with her girlfriends and wearing a mask at work did not count as “quarantine.”)
We learned about “asymptomatic spread” and “super-spreader events” as 2020 trudged along. We were advised to choose “contactless delivery” if possible; deciphered both the joys and meaning of the acronym “WFH.” We were advised to “social distance.” As the vaccines were rolled out, public health officials explained what “herd immunity” meant and how “MRNA” technology worked.
This year, we were disappointed by “breakthrough infections” and “anti-vaxxers.” Joe Biden introduced “vaccine mandates” and Bill de Blasio created “vaccine passports.” As summer turns to fall, we’re discussing “booster shots,” pondering the end of the “Delta variant,” anxious about its cousin “Mu.”
This isn’t an exhaustive list of COVID-related terms from the last 18 months. And there will be more to come. But it reminds me that in so many ways, COVID has been an endless stream of media events. It was a collective process of working out what was happening in real time, mostly accomplished via social media and cable news.
For so many, this was the first time in their lives they had to grapple with something fundamentally new. So many live comfortably within a late adopter context: the normie haze of franchise films and fast fashion and relatable influencers. This was the first time circumstance had forced them to live on the bleeding edge, to grapple with true novelty. It’s unsurprising they’re exhausted with forever COVID and its interminable terminology…
…AND ONE SUFFIX TO RULE THEM ALL
I’m not a deep believer in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language defines reality, but clearly new things need new names. (COVID has endlessly taught us this lesson.) How do we manage this without being engulfed by neologisms, acronyms, and jargon? The endless stream of online subcultures, digital tribes, fandoms, scenes and bespoke cyber-identities offers a solution: meme suffixes.
Language like all games, has rules. Why strain to engineer a unique neologism when prefixes and suffixes give us the tools to auto-generate terms at will? The goal of wordcraft after all is clear communication—not artistry.
There is always the risk of exhausting a terminology formula. New anything and post have been exhausted by corporate trend forecasting and academia respectively. They autogenerate eye rolls now. But for 2021, there are two suffixes doing most of the heavy lifting in our still mostly online cultural ferment: the dominant cores and the emergent pills.
The first -core was hardcore. It was about intensity, sincerity, aggression. As Pulp said on their 1998 album This is Hardcore: “You can't be a spectator, oh no / You got to take these dreams and make them whole.” To append a word with -core is to take it to the extreme, to invest in one aesthetic vision above all others.
After the 2014 virality of the normcore meme, the aesthetic potential of the suffix blossomed into a thousand varietals. Today, one of the best encyclopedias of the cores can be found on Aesthetics Wiki. You’ve probably heard of cottagecore by now. But what about rainbowcore? Or goblincore? Or nostalgiacore?
Note: Aesthetics Wiki entries are not exclusively -cores. Many also use less contemporary meme suffixes like -punk (i.e. steampunk) and -wave (i.e. chillwave).
The Matrix (1999) sits in a weird place culturally. It’s an allegory for transition to some, an allegory for right wing radicalization for others. Despite the Wachowskis best intentions, the latter association won. Men’s rights activists have been talking about being ‘redpilled’ on internet forums like 4chan for over a decade now. As the concept spread, the linguistic construction spawned imitators. To be blackpilled meant to become nihilistic about all possibilities of political reform. To be bluepilled meant to be totally in thrall to Establishment Democrats.
Over the last two years, the earnest political implications of the suffix have melted away. It’s now common Twitter parlance, popping up in both semi-serious and semi-satirical contexts. Convinced the future it Bitcoin? Maybe you are cryptopilled. Interested in starting a zine? Perhaps you are printpilled. Excited by new nutritional research concerning cheese? Yes, you are dairypilled.
What unites all these disparate uses are their concern for narrative. To be pilled is to buy into a story, large or small, that is in some way oppositional to the mainstream. Whether that is heart-healthy cheddar or QAnon remains up to you.
In 2021, it’s not about who you are—its about what you believe. Adrift in our bedrooms, tapping into our tiny little screens, we find our community, our scene, our whatever via the stories that motivate us.