Evolution isn’t only a biological process. It happens with just about everything: technology, education, medicine … and language.
I see most linguistic evolution as wholly natural. Meanings may broaden (such as Kleenex for tissue) or narrow (like skyline narrowing in the U.S. to specifically mean horizons containing skyscrapers), or they may degenerate (such as knave, which once meant boy or servant but now means a deceitful, despicable man), or elevate (such as knight, which also meant boy, to nobleman).
Author and language columnist Howard Richler wrote of some of these changes in “When good words go bad” in The National Post in 2013: “[A]t one time the word ‘fabulous’ meant resembling a fable; then it meant ‘incredible’ because what is found in fables is incredible. Now it has weakened even more and you can use it to describe a particular dress that you like. ‘Awful’ is another example. It originally meant ‘inspiring awe’ but since what inspires awe isn’t always so pleasant, it came to mean something negative. The original sense of awful—inspiring awe—doesn’t even exist anymore (although you still understand its meaning when reading Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’).”
Sometimes words lose their meaning not necessarily because of the changes in usage over decades or centuries but because of people intentionally misusing them, usually in some hyperbolic sense that, as so many things do, especially lately, comes down to the political. One could argue that this is natural as well since usage tends to dictate words’ meanings, but we have to draw a line somewhere when people change definitions at will; if the meaning of a word or phrase isn’t understood by the majority who see it, confusion breaks out.
I mean, seriously, there are just “facts,” not “facts” and “alternative facts.” A fact is something known or proved to be true. An alternative fact is an attempt to justify lies and/or opinion as truth.
Several words have lost their original meaning through misuse (awful being one of them), and for most of those, we don’t blink an eye for the most part as for most it wasn’t really intentional misuse (though I wouldn’t blame pre-19th century magicians for intentionally misusing “prestigious,” which once meant “practicing illusion” or magic, or “deceptive,” till it became what it now means, “inspiring respect or admiration”). Sure we’ll probably twitch a bit when someone says “literally” but means “figuratively,” but that’s expected.
“Persecution” is one of those words that to me epitomizes an unnatural shift. It has been devalued by its usage just any old time someone feels they’re being targeted. However, much of the time someone says they’re being persecuted, they’ve just been told they can’t have their way every single time because other people have rights as well. It might be accurate in some instances to say that those people have a persecution complex, an irrational sense that they’re being victimized by malignant forces; but actually persecuted … not necessarily. As Syndrome from “The Incredibles” might say, when everyone is persecuted, no one is.
People who are actually persecuted may lose their freedom, livelihood or lives because of their identity or beliefs; that would include groups like the Uyghurs in China, Coptic Christians in Egypt, and Jews (and gays, Romani, etc.) under the Nazis. To say you’re persecuted because you’re not allowed to force public school officials to lead a prayer on school grounds (keyword: public, meaning for all) or have “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” on your Starbucks cup (seriously? it’s a private business) denigrates the sacrifices of those people who’ve faced real hardship.
In the U.S., you have a wide array of rights, and you most likely have little to no resistance to your exercise of those rights. At the same time, you have to remember that others have the same rights, and yours end where theirs begin: We can all exercise our rights, but we have to realize that others get to exercise theirs as well.
When you continually misuse a word like persecution, it can lose its real impact and, as we’re finding with critical race theory, it can be turned around to mean whatever anyone opposing it wants it to mean. That’s why we need to hold the line on words like this (and racism, antisemitism, misogyny, feminist, etc.) so that they don’t become so diluted as to be meaningless.
Lately I’ve seen “tyranny” used in reference to rules about wearing masks, covid vaccine and/or test requirements and any number of other things that just don’t qualify as tyranny. Those who experienced the Holocaust, Joseph Stalin’s pogroms, or the cruel use of power by people like Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Kim Jung-Un and Bashar Assad could tell you about tyranny … if they survived. Genocide is tyrannical. Asking people to follow public health protocols (or even mandating they do) in a pandemic is not tyrannical.
Like with “persecution,” it appears that “tyranny” is being usurped by political forces to refer to any instance where someone doesn’t get their way because, for some odd reason, the rights of one person or group aren’t more important than those of everyone else. In a society, we make allowances for the good of the many. Public health is one of those things where vaccinations and pandemic protocols can mean the difference between life and death in slowing the spread of a deadly disease.
Our founding fathers understood that, which is why George Washington mandated variolation for his soldiers for inoculation against smallpox. As medicine evolved, the far less dangerous smallpox vaccination was developed, and the disease was declared eradicated in 1980 by the World Health Organization, with no naturally occurring cases since then. My cohort is among the very last Americans to have the smallpox vaccination; the last shots were given in 1972, when it was declared eradicated in the U.S.
We already have rules in place concerning vaccinations for other infectious diseases, with exemptions given in certain circumstances (generally religious or medical). Had covid-19 not been so politicized and mishandled at the outset, we probably wouldn’t have as much of a problem now. (It’s still being mishandled, but it’s harder to turn a ship around once it’s underway, especially with the amount of deliberate misinformation/disinformation health officials are up against.)
Most people don’t have much of an issue with taking precautions, whether it’s against disease, getting snowed in, arranging for someone to cover you at your job if you have to take leave, or any number of things. They don’t want to deal with being sick, being stuck with nothing but sardines (yech!), or with having to clean up the mess left behind by someone who hadn’t been trained. They don’t see those precautions as tyranny because they’re not. They’re simply ways to prepare ourselves in case the worst happens.
So pardon me if I roll my eyes the next time someone who’s received other required vaccinations calls the covid vaccination or other measures related to the pandemic tyranny, especially when they’re recycling anti-vax lines of argument from more than a century ago (during a smallpox epidemic, by the way). There are legitimate reasons not to be vaccinated, but your odds are better, if you are medically able, if you get the covid vaccination. You’re far more likely to not even have to be hospitalized if you get covid if you’ve been vaccinated or to suffer the worst effects than someone who isn’t vaccinated. If you can’t or won’t get vaccinated, follow the rest of the pandemic protocols for your health and that of everyone around you. It’s not tyranny, it’s basic human decency.
And pardon me if I say no to the people trying to change the definitions of tyranny and persecution for no good reason other than they disagree with requirements that apply to everyone. I’m pretty laid-back as far as linguistic shifts go for the most part, but please, stop trying to make being expected to follow common-sense rules “tyranny.”
You’re being asked to wear a mask, get vaccinated, and social distance, not being put in a prison camp. Do I really have to remind you of Auschwitz, Rwanda, Armenia, and a thousand other instances that actually constituted persecution and/or tyranny?