Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Signifiers


How the meaning of a word became corrupted.

Wilfred M. McClay

Dmitriip/Shutterstock, Inc.

We have more than enough language policing these days, even though it is now devoted more to varieties of social and political correctness than to matters of grammar, diction, or usage. The most assiduous guardians of the latter considerations—including William Safire (of the famous “On Language” column in the New York Times) and Richard Mitchell (a.k.a. “The Underground Grammarian”)—have long gone the way of all flesh. But there are times when one sees senseless violence being done to a word, and one must speak up. The inner Edwin Newman (to invoke another member of that quixotic Old Guard) can be denied for only so long.

I’ve come to that point with the word performative, which has managed to insinuate itself in record time into the discourse of academics and journalists, seemingly overnight becoming an infestation as annoying as body lice and as worthless as a pile of wooden nickels. Its swift adoption reminds us of the enduring compulsion George Orwell described so well in his great essay “Politics and the English Language”:

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.

In Shakespeare’s day, such words were disparaged as “inkhorn terms,” a reference to the scholar’s overflowing inkwell, and thus to all ostentatious and pedantic efforts to impart the sheen of scholarly elevation to something perfectly ordinary. It’s the same today, only more so. We all have become ink-stained wretches, having been on the receiving end of incessant verbal splatterings for many years now.

What is worse, the meaning of performative in contemporary parlance, while not very precise, is almost exactly the opposite of the word’s original meaning. When journalists refer to former president Trump as a “performative” figure, or accuse celebrity activists of “performative wokeness,” all they are saying, in that absurdly pretentious way, is that “it’s all for show.” Something “performative” is a mere performance, an act of theatricality, a tableau of artifice behind which there is nothing, or at least nothing substantial or authentic. Dare one point out that there are better ways—more vivid, precise, effective, and cogent ways—to express the same idea, without resorting to the wooden abstraction of this Latinate word?

But more to the point, and in defense of performative, it is a technical academic word that was invented to serve a particular purpose. The British philosopher J.L. Austin (1911–60) was an influential exponent of the view that our use of language must in some instances be understood as a form of action, and not merely as a system of signifiers that record and order the structure of reality. His most famous work, How to Do Things with Words (1955), is the locus classicus for the understanding of what he called a “performative utterance,” and he would go on to label such utterances “speech acts,” uses of language that are not describing something—indeed, are not even susceptible of being judged true or false, real or artificial—but doing something.

It was an important observation, and if the uses to which the concept of the speech act have been put go to absurd lengths at times—something academics are always prone to do, when they get their hands on a new conceptual toy—that abuse does not detract from the power of Austin’s original insight—and the usefulness of this rather awkward and ugly word to denote it. Once we’re alerted to this distinction, we begin to see it in many places. When the bride and groom say “I do” in their marriage ceremony, or when the officiant pronounces them man and wife, when promises are made and words of permission are granted, when a will orders the bequest of a precious object, and in fact in nearly all contracts—the language being used is performative in character. It is language that does not merely describe something. It enacts something.

There is much more to be said about Austin’s thought and its successors, but the simple point is that performative speech, rightly understood, is the very opposite of speech that is phony or used only for show (though it may well appear theatrical). Performative language is light-years removed from the virtue signaling with which we are awash, the yard signs that assure us that “hate has no home here,” even if we had never been curious to ask. Instead, performative language is arguably the single most robust and consequential use of language there is, whose paradigm is that most primal use of language in the book of Genesis, in which “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” By words the world is made.

I hold no brief for the totality of Austin’s theories, let alone the leaden academic expressions he has inflicted on us all. (To his credit, he did apologize for performative, of which he said, “It is a new word and an ugly word, and perhaps it does not mean anything very much.”) But he deserves our thanks for pointing us toward something we seem to have forgotten in these times of “performative” volubility: the extraordinary power of language, the human gift par excellence, which has the godlike capacity to make something—a vow, a marriage, a promise—out of nothing. “For with names,” wrote the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir,

the world was called
Out of the empty air,
With names was built and walled,
Line and circle and square,
Dust and emerald;
Snatched from deceiving death
By the articulate breath.

If performative could be rescued from its current cultural captivity, it too might contribute, in its awkward way, to the recovery of such a recognition. Meantime, it is sobering to contemplate how easily the meaning of a word can be corrupted into its opposite.