Twisted Terms: The Evolution of Words from Innocent Origins to Charged Symbols in Social Justice

An illustration of a girl sitting in a circle with a laptop, exploring the evolution of words.
An illustration of a girl sitting in a circle with a laptop, exploring the evolution of words.

If you are reading this and are neurodivergent, you likely understand the deep dives we often go down when something grabs our attention. This was one of those instances for me.

Nikki Haley, a Republican currently running for the Republican nomination for President, was born Nimarata Nikki Randhawa to immigrant Sikh parents from Amritsar, Punjab, India. She’s also someone who says there is no racism in the United States.

Let that sink in for a minute.

She changed her name to sound more “white” but doesn’t believe there is racism in the United States. I don’t get it.

I started out exploring Punjabi to fully understand this culture. According to Brittanica.com, the people of Punjab are mainly descendants of the Aryan tribes. This is where it gets really interesting for me because wait…what??? I thought Aryan meant white supremacists.

It doesn’t. Historically, “Aryan” referred to the Indo-Iranian people and languages, part of the larger Indo-European family. The term was academically used to describe a group of ancient peoples who spoke Proto-Indo-Iranian languages, originating in regions that are now Iran and Northern India. It stems from the Sanskrit term, Arya, which means noble or distinguished and scholars now believe it was more of a descriptive term relating to the characteristics of someone rather than referring to their race.

Somewhere along the way…

The term “Aryan” was misappropriated and distorted by white supremacists, a significant deviation from its original meaning.

The misappropriation began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in Europe. Pseudoscientific racial theories, which were popular at the time, erroneously classified the “Aryan race” as a superior and pure race. These theories, combined with nationalism and xenophobia, led to the term being co-opted by white supremacists, particularly in Nazi Germany, to fit their ideology of racial purity and superiority. The Nazis propagated the myth that the “Aryan race” was synonymous with all peoples of European descent, particularly those of Germanic origin, and used it to justify their policies of racial discrimination and genocide.

This appropriation was based on a distorted interpretation of linguistic and historical data, rather than any scientific evidence. The misuse of the term “Aryan” by white supremacists is a stark example of how language and historical concepts can be manipulated to serve harmful and divisive ideologies. Here are some other examples of words that have changed in their meaning over time…sometimes for the good and sometimes not:

  1. Gay: Originally meant “joyful” or “carefree,” but over time, it became the primary term for homosexuality, shifting from a general adjective to a specific sexual orientation identifier.
  2. Woke: Initially a simple past tense of “wake,” it has come to signify being aware of social injustices, particularly regarding race and gender issues. Its use has expanded and sometimes become a term of derision in political and social debates.
  3. Feminism: Originally focused on advocating for women’s rights on the grounds of equality of the sexes, this term has evolved and expanded to include issues of intersectionality, addressing how race, class, and other identities intersect with gender.
  4. Queer: Once a term to express contempt for LGBTQ+ individuals, it’s been reclaimed by the community and is now used as an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or cisgender.
  5. Thug: Historically, this word referred to a member of a group of criminals in India. Over time, in some contexts, it has taken on racial connotations when used to describe certain individuals, often unfairly implying criminality or violence.
  6. Radical: Originally meaning “going to the root or origin” and used to describe fundamental changes, it has been co-opted in social justice contexts to denote extreme viewpoints or measures, sometimes negatively.
  7. Ally: Traditionally a term for a member of an alliance, it has evolved in social justice circles to mean someone who actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive, and conscious efforts that benefit marginalized groups.

These examples illustrate how language is dynamic and reflects changing societal attitudes and values. Each word’s evolution is a story of cultural shifts and the power of communities to redefine narratives.

What I find fascinating about all of this is that words really are just words. They take on the meaning that is assigned to them by us. That meaning sticks until a large group of people begin to think it means something else. This is known as a Semantic Change or Shift. There are many reasons this happens but the main point is that it happens. Period. There is no way to avoid it. I’m not going to go into more details or my thoughts about words shifting in their meaning here because that’s an entire side quest that I don’t have energy for right now BUT I will say, that I am fascinated with how some words end up being used in a completely different way than once intended and it makes me wonder why we get so hung up on a word. What is offensive today may not be tomorrow and vice versa. It’s hard to keep up sometimes. For now, I’m just going to go with the flow, taking note of how things change and exploring the why when curiosity is about to kill my cat.

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