Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Signifiers

Performative

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.

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