I find it interesting when certain words and concepts get picked up by the media, who then ride them to the point where they become ubiquitous, sometimes with their original meaning greatly expanded or radically transformed. Why does this happen? Where does it start?

One example that became very popular during the Trump presidency was “empathy.” It got a lot of play because Donald Trump was seen (I think correctly) as someone lacking in it. But I suspect its mainstream adoption goes back to George Lakoff’s 2008 book The Political Mind, which popularized the idea that there are progressive and conservative modes of thought, with the latter characterized by authority and the former by empathy. At least the timing seems right.

The other big example, and one that I find a bit grating, is “existential.” Let’s face it, until recently the only time you would have heard this word being used would be in a discussion of developments in nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy and literature. Today, however, it is used all the time by people who may have never heard of Kierkegaard or Dostoyevsky, Sartre or Camus. What it means now is, simply, “a matter of life and death.” That is, any situation where one’s existence seems at stake. I’m not sure where or when this took off, but it has the feel of a fad that’s likely to burn out pretty soon. It just seems stupid to talk about a business having to make an existential decision, or if dining out at a restaurant during a pandemic might involve such a choice.

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