Mind your language

The language of the victimhood war

28 August 2021

9:00 AM

28 August 2021

9:00 AM

Language is used in a weird way in the victimhood war, where those who see themselves without agency bravely speak their truth to power. Their truth cannot be negated merely by examining the evidence, for it derives from lived experience. The powerful are axiomatically guilty, and must be called out for their behaviour or behaviours, as the new usage puts it. They must then own or take ownership of the issue.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex found themselves victims without agency in the racist world of the royal family. During their interview with Oprah Winfrey, they spoke of conversations between the Duke and a member of the family about their unborn son Archie and what colour his skin might be. After the interview, the Queen issued a statement saying that she was ‘saddened by the claims’ but that ‘some recollections may vary’.

In a new chapter to a biography of Harry and Meghan, the joint authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand write: ‘The Queen’s “recollections may vary” comment did not go unnoticed by the couple, who a close source said were “not surprised” that full ownership was not taken.’

What can this mean? If the Queen’s comment had gone unnoticed by the couple, they would have had to be very dim indeed. It sounds, then, as though taking full ownership means ‘owning up’.

To own occupies a semantic field which turns out to be a Grimpen Mire. The Spectator of 19 July 1890 is quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary as the earliest source for a special meaning of millionaires ‘owning, that is, controlling, both the professional politicians and the press’. To own up had sprouted in America 50 years earlier. It wasn’t until the 1970s that America became fertile ground for a new sense of own or take ownership: ‘feeling responsible for solving a problem’, or, as a problem came to be called, an issue.

If a Black Spot has been handed to you when you are called out for some incorrect phrase, you cannot question the accusation, or you will be cancelled. You must own your offending behaviours, make public apology, undergo awareness training and make structural changes to address the issue.

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