"Avatar". I never saw the movie, but well before it appeared I was using the word in my newsgroup posts to refer to women who, in my mind, incarnated, albeit fleetingly or imperfectly, the goddess whose existence has always prevented me from being an atheist for more than three days in a week. Purists will dislike me for this slapdash usage, but at least I was adhering consciously to the notion of divinity. Now that everyone and her dog has an "avatar", or maybe several, on social media, I am forced to choose between reprocessing my former usage as banal, or entertaining the conjecture that everyone who uses social media either considers herself to be a god, or else is de facto an ignorant git. I'll let you know when I've made up my mind.
"The military". The dictionaries refuse to back me up on this, just as they refuse to countenance my pedantic preference for "hatred" as a noun rather than "hate", so don't pay too much attention. But I can't help remembering that, back in the sixties and seventies, people still talked about "the army" and more inclusively, "the armed forces". Perhaps I'm eccentric, but "military" still sounds to me like an adjective, and "he's in the military" as contrived as "he's in the eleemosynary" or "she's in the pedagogical". Take it or leave it: I'd probably leave it if I were you, unless it happens to be your pet peeve too, in which case, see a doctor.
"misogyny". I used to treasure (before it ended up in a conflagration in the Pyrenees) a letter from my first girlfriend in which she lamented (this was in the early eighties) that "misogyny" in a man was "seen as interesting", and as the mark of a creative mind, whereas "androgyny" (sic - she meant misandry) was seen merely as evidence of mental instability (at least in a woman). At the time I read this, I thought "hmm, she has a point". But of course, the word has changed its meaning so much that nowadays she wouldn't have even the ghost of one.
The girlfriend in question, Yvonne, was a more-or-less radical feminist, and we were together (sort of) for three and a half years: yet apart from this one letter, I don't know if I heard her use the word "misogynist" or "misogyny" once. It wasn't then a staple of the feminist vocabulary as far as I'm aware. In fact, I'm pretty sure that she and her friends would have strenuously opposed any suggestion that "hatred or dislike of women" (for this is what the word once meant) was at the root of discrimination and sexism: they would have countered that by reducing a social and political problem to a psychological one, you were trivialising and dismissing it, and letting men and social institutions off the hook too easily. On the contrary - they would have said - you can claim to love and respect women, and genuinely believe that you do, and still be part of the problem, to the extent that "love" and "respect" provided an excuse for differential, ultimately patronising, treatment.
Perhaps what I'm saying here is that back in the eighties it was still possible, for some mental gymnasts at any rate, to be an egalitarian and yet call yourself a feminist. I believe the evolution in usage of "misogyny" reflects the concurrent evolution of feminism from a nominally egalitarian movement into a supremacist, or at least aggressively partisan one: after all, in order to claim that the central problem feminism addresses is, at least partly, a negative attitude in people's mind towards the collective "women", you have to posit that these negative attitudes are extremely widespread, which means that people who are conscious only of a drooling gynocentrism in their own minds are forced to wonder how much higher the pedestal on which they place the "women" abstraction has to be in order to 'scape whipping, or whether there is much practical difference, aside from the severity of legal penalties, between being a "misogynist" in the West, and a "blasphemer" in the Muslim world.
Then, to the extent that society takes notice of you and mends its ways, so that it is no longer possible to make jokes based on gender stereotypes and still keep your job, the feminists realise they have a problem: where the abstract collective "women" has been elevated in the public discourse to the status of a divinity, and the pedestal has been hoisted into the cumulonimbus, how can you plausibly continue to claim that "hatred or dislike" of this deified entity is a major social problem? This point, which we reached perhaps a decade or two ago, is when "misogyny" quietly ceased to refer to an attitude held by individuals, and became something "structural" or "systemic":
It goes without saying that the "system" or "structure" in question turns out to be a mere unfalsifiable assertion backed up, at best, by anecdote or cherrypicked statistics. But that isn't really the point here. Even if it were true that there was a "system" in place in Western society that discriminated against women by imposing unfair gender expectations on them (e.g. by expecting them to live up to the quasi-divine ideal of "woman" as "that which can only be disliked by the evillest of men"), there would still be no reason to use the formerly attitudinal term "misogynist" to describe it, when there are better terms available ("sexist", "discriminatory", etc.). For those of us still nostalgically inclined to semantic precision, "misogyny" will continue to mean what my ex understood it to mean: an attitude, held by a few men and perhaps also a few women, of visceral distaste and repulsion towards whatever is identified in the mind as "female" - whether female bodies, or female social roles, or perhaps allegedly representative individual females within one's family or acquaintances. Understood in this way, I do believe she had a point: open dislike of women is historically so rare in men, and so obviously contrary to the dominant social force of gynocentric galanterie in the service of procreation, that you can see how its non-ecclesiastical expression (for example, in the writings of a Schopenhauer or a Strindberg) might be regarded as evidence of an unusual independence of mind and strength of character (which would not necessarily mean endorsing it). Similarly, a woman who professed to hate men would likewise have been transgressing against a social norm - with the difference that her social position of economic dependence on males would, historically, have made such transgression appear not so much brave as foolish and self-injurious. (Which, of course, is no longer the case today.)4. Manne's definition of misogyny, despite controversy, is, I think perfectly reasonable. She argues that its not a psychological state; it is, rather, the product of a system that holds women in their place. Women who defy gender roles are punished. Those who conform are not.— Bo Winegard (@EPoe187) April 23, 2019
What I think we're seeing, arguably in the case of "avatar" and more credibly in "misogyny", is not so much semantic shift as semantic inflation. We know that if a government floods the economy with printed money, that money will soon lose part of its value, and end up being worthless paper, a suitcase load of which will barely get you a loaf of bread. We know that if examining boards, under pressure from government, hand out more grade "A" GCSEs and A levels every year, universities will just ask for more As, and when there's nothing more they're allowed to ask for, lower their standards. In the same way, if we widen the semantic scope of a word, it ends up denoting less and less, and ultimately becomes mere emotional connotation or phatic utterance. The go-to example would probably be "fascist": once, the word denoted a specific political tendency, but nowadays you'd be unwise to read anything more into it than "I strongly disagree with your politics" (and I expect to hear, any day now, "My boss is a fascist - he wants me to work Saturdays"). Why does this happen? Why do the denotations of words expand to encompass more and more, meaning ultimately less and less?
I don't know. I also don't know what part social media have to play in this, or to what extent Twitter, Facebook and the like will contribute to linguistic debasement and woolly thinking in the immediate future. However, if I may be allowed an unproven conjecture (yes, another):
Words unite people, at an elementary social level, but they also divide people into tribes. Do a search on Twitter for "socialist" if you don't believe me: there's a tribe that uses the word to mean "Marxist", another that uses it to mean "social democrat", a third that uses it to mean "welfare-oriented", and so on, according to political tendency (and let's not get into Wilde). I think what often happens is that people hear or see a word, perhaps a rather academic or intellectual-sounding one that suggests membership of a socially desirable caste, and instinctively suspect that using the word might either give them access to the coveted tribe, or at least make it appear to others that they belong to it. Our usage is thus a form of social signalling. Unfortunately, we do not always need to understand a word to appreciate its connotations. One could probably survive in a London dinner-party with no more knowledge of the meaning of "misogynist" or "fascist" than that both words refer to Bad People. In student politics you can sometimes see people feeling their way like this: to the youthful revolutionary, the term "ultra-left" might fleetingly sound like a good thing to be, until he hears a political enemy denounced with the term, and learns that it isn't, without quite knowing why.
However, the more we misuse words and debase them, the more a limited number of people, those who require the word to mean something precise in order to communicate successfully on a topic of shared interest, will demarcate their own usage, thus by implication asserting a separate tribal identity. If this tribal identity becomes coveted or high-status, then people will want to appropriate, not the debased word, but others that more successfully communicate distinction, and the process begins again, a fractal process of dialect formation that has no obvious limit. Like I say, you can be part of it, or sit on the sidelines and fume. At my age and with my blood pressure, impotent fuming seems like the easier, hence wiser, choice.