Lexicon of Meaningless Words: “Weird”

The past few weeks have been filled with fairly heavy posts on curriculum, pedagogy, detailed posts on the MAPH, getting a job as a philosopher and lots of other things that require a specialized interest in MAPH, Philosophy as a discipline, or me personally.  With this in mind, I’m embarking on a series of less-intense posts aimed at pointing out the utter uselessness of many words one commonly hears employed in conversation and print–both lauded and low.  Some of these words have lost their meaning because of shifts in philosophical or ideological convention and others pragmatically gave theirs up because people needed to say something without saying anything.  My argument is that these words currently fail to do the sort of things that words must above all do: communicate ideas.  Dear reader, you are more than free–you are encouraged!–to disagree with me, your humble lexicographer–but if you find yourself persuaded by my rhetoric please respond by striking these words from your academic and social conversation and replacing them with meaningful, communicative words that get intellectual work done.

Weird: (adj.) That which one says when one has not considered what they might say.

(What did you think of the gallery exhibition?  It was weird.)

Weird is one of those words that was coined for a very specific referent, then misunderstood and taken to mean something almost entirely different, and then descended into complete meaninglessness in modern usage. The word “weird” as a noun, comes from  the annals of ye olde English, where it meant “fate” or “destiny.” By the time that Ye Olde English had passed on, Middle English had narrowed its meaning to reference the Fates of Greek and Roman myth.  In Scotland weird became associated with the divinations supposedly performed by witches. Thus, when Shakespeare chose to write of three fortune-telling siblings in Macbeth, he meant not so much to say that the weird sisters were odd so much as they were capable of tarot readings.

From its appearance in the Scottish Play onward, “weird” was misunderstood to refer to a quality of the witches rather than their job description and the word’s adjectival uses crystallized around a nexus of the uncanny, supernatural, and otherwise inexplicable.  It was in this sense that Weird Tales, beginning in 1923, employed the term to refer to the stores of Howard Philip Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and many others.  Sadly, it also probably Weird Tales popular use of the term that caused it to descend from “weird” in the sense of supernatural or uncanny to merely describe the sorts of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genre conventions that were established in its pages and the pages of many other similar pulp magazines popular into the late sixties.

However, I do not believe that “weird” today means anything other than “I haven’t another adjective to explain myself or my opinion.”  In this regard, to say something is weird today–far from saying something about the subject to which the adjective is attached–merely brands the speaker as one who lacks either critical thinking or a reasonable vocabulary.

Interlocutor: What did you think of The Village?

Subject: I didn’t like it.  It was weird.

Interlocutor: So you thought it was supernatural and uncanny?  I actually thought the ending demolished any possibility that the monsters were anything other than the adult’s manufactured boogeymen to protect the children from straying outside the village’s protective womb.

Subject: Huh?

Interlocutor: Oh, I’m sorry… I thought you were using weird as an adjective–as opposed to a verbal placeholder for a justification that you’ll never get around to codifying.  So really you just didn’t understand the movie or found its ideas too far out of your limited comfort zone to analyze.

Subject: It was a movie–I didn’t know I was going to have to think.

Interlocutor: Ahh, yes.  Because my mother told me that if I could say anything nice I shouldn’t say anything, I’m going to say that your response to The Village and this whole conversation was weird.

Remember, if you don’t disagree in the comments, I’ll just go on being right.

Tomorrow’s Lexicon entry: “Beautiful”


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