Words are routinely abused by those in power to manipulate us but we should be most vigilant when we encounter a new class of “plastic words“. What are these plastic words? In 1988, the German linguist Uwe Pörksen published his landmark book “Plastikwörter:Die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur” (literal translation into English: “Plastic words: The language of an international dictatorship“) in which he describes the emergence and steady expansion during the latter half of the 20th century of selected words that are incredibly malleable yet empty when it comes to their actual meaning. Plastic words have surreptitiously seeped into our everyday language and dictate how we think. They have been imported from the languages of science, technology and mathematics, and thus appear to be imbued with their authority. When used in a scientific or technological context, these words are characterized by precise and narrow definitions, however this precision and definability is lost once they become widely used. Pörksen’s use of “plastic” refers to the pliability of how these words can be used and abused but he also points out their similarity to plastic lego bricks which act as modular elements to construct larger composites. The German language makes it very easy to create new composite words by combining two words but analogous composites can be created in English by stringing together multiple words. This is especially important for one of Pörksen’s key characteristics of plastic words: they have become part of an international vocabulary with cognate words in numerous languages.
Here are some examples of “plastic words”(German originals are listed in parentheses next to the English translations) – see if you recognize them and if you can give a precise definition of what they mean:
Even though these words are very difficult to pin down in terms of their actual meaning, they are used with a sense of authority that mandates their acceptance and necessity. They are abstract expressions that imply the need for expertise to understand and implement their connotation. Their implicit authority dissuades us from questioning the appropriateness of their usage and displaces more precise or meaningful synonyms. They have a modular lego-like nature so that they can be strung together with each other or with additional words to expand their authority; for example, “resource development“, “information society“, “strategic relationship” or “communication process“.
How about the word “love”? Love is also very difficult to define but when we use it, we are quite aware of the fact that it carries many different nuances. We tend to ask questions such as “What kind of love? Erotic, parental, romantic, spiritual? Who is in love and is it truly love?” On the other hand, when we hear “resource development’, we may just nod our heads in agreement. Of course resources need to be developed!
Pörksen published his book during the pre-internet, Cold War era and there have been new families of plastic words that could perhaps be added to the list in the 21st century. For one, there is the jargon of Silicon Valley that used by proponents of internet-centrism. Words such as digital, cyber, internet, online, data or web have entered everyday language but we rarely think about their actual meaning. The word internet, for example, technically refers to a bunch of servers and input devices and screen connected by cables and routers but it has taken on a much broader cultural and societal significance. An expression such as internet economy should elicit the important question of who is part of the “internet economy” and who is left out? The elderly and the poor have limited access to the internet in many countries of the world but we may gloss over this fact when we speak of the internet. The words innovation, integration, global and security/safety have also become key plastic words in the 21st century.
How do these plastic words become vehicles for the imposition of rigid views and tyranny? Two recent examples exemplify this danger.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May justified Britain’s decision to leave the European Union after a campaign characterized by anti-immigrant prejudice and nationalism in a speech by invoking Britain’s new global role:
“I want us to be a truly Global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike.”
It is difficult to argue with the positive connotation of a Global Britain. Global evokes images of the whole planet Earth, and why shouldn’t Britain forge new relationships with all the people and countries on our planet? However, the nationalist and racist sentiments that prompted the vote to leave the European Union surely did not mean that Britain would welcome people from all over the globe. In fact, the plastic words global and relationships allow the British government to arbitrarily define the precise nature of these relationships, likely focused on maximizing trade and profits for British corporations while ignoring the poorer nations of our globe.
Similarly, an executive order issued by the new American president Donald Trump within a week of his inauguration banned the entry of all foreigners heralding from a selected list of Muslim-majority countries into the USA citing concerns about security, safety and welfare of the American people. As with many plastic words, achieving security, safety and welfare sound like important and laudable goals but they also allow the US government to arbitrarily define what exactly constitutes security, safety and welfare of the American people. One of the leading enforcement agencies of the totalitarian East German state was the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit – Ministry for State Security). It allowed the East German government to arrest and imprison any citizen deemed to threaten the state’s security – as defined by the Stasi.
How do we respond to the expanding use of plastic words? We should be aware of the danger inherent in using these words because they allow people in power – corporations, authorities or government agencies – to define their meanings. When we hear plastic words, we need to ask about the context of how and why they are used, and replace them with more precise synonyms. Resist the tyranny of plastic words by asking critical questions.
Pörksen, U. (1988). Plastikwörter: die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur. Klett-Cotta.
Poerksen, U. (1995). Plastic words: The tyranny of a modular language. Penn State Press.
Note: An earlier version of this post was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.