Today's Paper Latest Coronavirus The Article iPad Core Values Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive Story ideas

OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Artificial selection

by Brenda Looper | January 12, 2022 at 3:55 a.m.
Brenda Looper

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 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 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.

"Persecution" is one of those words that to me epitomizes an unnatural shift. It has been devalued by its usage 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.

People who are actually persecuted may lose their freedom, livelihood or lives; that would include groups like the Uyghurs in China, Coptic Christians in Egypt, and Jews 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 or have "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" on your Starbucks cup denigrates the sacrifices of those people who've faced real hardship because of their beliefs.

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.

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 at the outset, we probably wouldn't have as much of a problem now.

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, 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.

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.

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."

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at Read her blog at

Print Headline: Artificial selection


Sponsor Content