Weekly Word Watch: incel, pansexual, and planet B
On our Word Watch, we do our best to stay abreast of the lexical trends week after week. However, some terms, like Kanye West’s dragon energy, are just beyond our ken. Here are five other terms from this week we can tell you some more about:
On Monday, accused driver Alex Minassian drove a van into pedestrians in Toronto, claiming 10 lives and injuring 14 others. Right before the horrific attack, Minassian apparently posted on Facebook: ‘The Incel Rebellion has already begun!’
Incel is short for involuntary celibate, an internet-based subculture of heterosexual men who blame women – often to radically misogynistic extremes – for their lack of a sex life and for their relationship failures more generally.
The term is popularly credited to a Canadian woman, Alana, who launched Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project in May 1997. The project was an online space welcoming people of all gender expressions who were later to sexual experiences in life. By October 1997, as lexicographer Ben Zimmer found for Politico, Alana had shortened the name to INVCEL on her mailing list. Members quickly picked up the abbreviation, and a participant not long after suggested dropping the V for ease of pronunciation, yielding incel.
In the 2000s, involuntary celibacy was seized upon, at first humorously and later very earnestly, by the manosphere, an informal term for segments of the internet concerned with male empowerment. A notorious Reddit community, r/incel, launched in 2013 and Reddit subsequently banned the group four years later following intensifying sexism and misogyny on the forum, including calls for sexual violence against women and praise for Elliot Rodger, a self-identified incel who massacred students at the University of Santa Barbara in California in 2014.
Incels, as well as the larger manosphere, use a fairly extensive in-group lexicon to describe their perceived victimization, including alphas, betas, cucks, red pills, blue pills, and black pills. In February, we noted deepfake, or pornography swapping the faces of female celebrities onto actors; the term has some currency in the manosphere.
In this online community, cel has become a somewhat productive combining form. A volcel, for instance, is voluntary celibate, popular among MGTOW, or Men Going Their Own Way, a movement of men who reject women due to their belief in their oppression of men.
Incel has indeed come a long way from its source, celibate, first attested in the 17th century and used of priests. It ultimately comes from the Latin caelebs, ‘unmarried’, a word of obscure origin – but with derivatives of increasing prominence and urgency.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine published this Thursday, singer Janelle Monáe says she identifies as pansexual:
Being a queer black woman in America… someone who has been in relationships with both men and women… I read about pansexuality and was like, ‘Oh, these are things that I identify with too’. I’m open to learning more about who I am.
Pansexuality, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘encompasses all kinds of sexuality; not limited or inhibited in sexual choice with regards to gender or practice’ – a sense first recorded in a letter by feminist author Robin Morgan from 1969. Morgan uses pansexual as a gloss on unisexual. Pan, here, is from the Greek for ‘all’ or ‘wholly’ (e.g. pantheism).
Monáe joins singer Miley Cyrus in making headlines – and breaking barriers – since 2015 in coming out as pansexual, both emphasizing the term in distinction to perceived limitations of the label bisexual. Both stars have helped introduced the broader public to the term pansexual in recent years, but the earliest evidence for the term actually dates back to the early 1900s, when it was veritably Freudian. Pansexual, from pansexualism, conveyed the idea that the ‘sex instinct’ is the underlying motivation for all behavior, which we can imagine Freud would have argued included one’s identification as pansexual.
One phrase that keeps, well, popping up in the media is pop-up brothel.
As part of ongoing reporting on the phenomenon, the BBC published a video this week featuring a charity joining a broader police crackdown of so-called pop-up brothels. These refer to the temporary use of accommodations, especially short-term lets and Airbnb rentals, for prostitution. Authorities have been reporting a rise in them across the UK particularly since 2017.
Some, including Dulcie Lee in the New Statesman, have criticized the phrase pop-up brothel as sensationalist, blurring important differences between legitimate sex work and heinous sex trafficking.
The word brothel is attested in the late 1300s, originally referring to a ‘wretch’ or ‘scoundrel’. It comes from an Old English verb meaning ‘to go to ruin’. In the 1400s, brothel extended to ‘prostitute’ and became irrevocably confused with the similar-looking but completely unrelated bordel, a term for a ‘house of prostitution’ taken from the Romance languages.
The verb pop up, or ‘appear unexpectedly’, is found in the mid-1700s, applied as a pop-up to baseball in the 1880s, books in the early 1900s, and computing in the 1980s.
In recent years, though, pop-up has been a common, if trendy, descriptor for, as the OED defines it, a ‘shop or other business which opens quickly in a temporary location and is intended to operate for a short period of time’. Its first attestation, in 2000, refers to a pop-up pub on a military base. Pop-up cafes, bars, and restaurants – often styled eateries or kitchens, ever the culinary buzzwords of our day – are familiar to denizens from LA to Tokyo. Pop-up conference rooms, art spaces, museums, hotels, bookstores, salons, dating services, and yes, pop-up brothels are proving pop-up is a big term for a growing business in the 2010s.
But is the term pop-up, as we so often see in cultural trends, being overextended? A pop-up poetry reading, for instance, might just be a poetry reading, after all. A pop-up salon could just as well be an event. Maybe pop-up is just fun to say – though the darker likes of pop-up brothel suggests that may be not be long-lived.
As part of his visit to the US, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the US Congress, using the occasion to fire some shots at President Trump.
Macron notably targeted Trump’s withdrawal from the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement in his environmental considerations: ‘By polluting the oceans, not mitigating CO2 emissions, and destroying our biodiversity – we are killing our planet. Let us face it. There is no planet B.’
Macron’s Planet B is a clever, punning, though not novel take on the expression plan B, an ‘alternative strategy’ or, more colloquially, ‘a backup plan’. It implies that Planet A, Earth as we know it, is all we have – and there’s no way we’re all moving house to Planet X, a pre-named term for Pluto in the early 1900s.
Nevertheless, we’ve been devising plan Bs since at least the 1850s, when the OED records Plan B in a trial proceedings: ‘I voted for the Dixon plan marked A, and the rest went for Dixon’s plan B.’ While this citation effectively evidences plan A, the phrase, as such, is properly attested in 1870 alongside another early instance of plan B in US congressional reports about the Paris World Fair, as it so happens.
Planet B is running parallel to another ‘alternate reality’ popular on social media especially since the election of Donald Trump: Earth 2, a shorthand expression for what ‘normal’ life might be like had the results been different.
Last November, we marked on the Weekly Word Watch that the president of Kazakhstan switched his country from a Cyrillic-based alphabet to a Latin one, sending Qazaqstan into our geography books. Late last week, the king of Swaziland, Mswati III, introduced another place name into our lexicon.
To mark the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain, the king changed his English-oriented country name Swaziland to its native equivalent in Swazi: eSwatini, or ‘land of the Swazis’. Resources for the Bantu language Swazi (or siSwati) are, alas, relatively sparse online, but one source says the unusual-seeming e in eSwati functions as a place-marker or locative prefix, roughly ‘in’, making eSwatini more literally mean ‘in Swazi’.
Swaziland was one of many colonial names of a type: Malawi was Nyasaland, Nigeria was Hausaland, Lesotho was Basutoland, and Botswana was Bechuanaland. Others bore their subjugation more explicitly, like Ghana as the Gold Coast or Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia together referred to as Italian East Africa.
While some criticize Mswati III for using eSwatini to distract from its pressing HIV crisis, many welcome how the change is a long-overdue linguistic shedding of its colonial past. At the very least, eSwatini gives us occasion to learn a little bit about the under-appreciated Swazi language.