Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Signifiers


Looking beyond the consensus of the crowd.

Wilfred M. McClay


Those of us who take a loving interest in words—their etymological forebears, their many layers of meaning, their often-surprising histories—have a tendency to resist change. Not that we think playfulness should be proscribed—such pedantry would be a cure worse than any disease. It’s just that we are also drawn, like doting parents, into wanting to protect the language, and thus become suspicious of mysterious strangers, of the introduction of new words, and of new meanings for familiar ones.

When we find words being used in a novel way, our countenances tend to stiffen. What’s going on here? Is this a euphemism? Is there a hidden agenda here?

But there are times when the older language seems inadequate, and in fact may mislead us into thinking that the world has not changed. New signifiers may sometimes be necessary, in order to describe new things.

Such is unquestionably the case of the new/old word influencer. At first glance, it looks harmless and insignificant, a lazy and imprecise way of designating someone as influential. But the word’s use as a noun is the key to what is different and new about it. And much as I dislike the word, and dislike the phenomenon it describes, necessity seems to have dictated that such a word be created.

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