2021: For the word insurrection, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
In 2022, we’re pretty much looking at just the worst of times.
A year after insurrectionists/seditionists sacked and looted the Capitol, too many Americans can’t agree on either the nouns or the verbs in that last phrase. We saw this last week, as the FBI’s arrest of 11 people on sedition charges caused Merriam-Webster lookups of the words sedition and seditious to spike 15,000%.
But it’s not just because these words are less common that so many are grappling with their definitions. It’s because there are deliberate efforts afoot to warp the definitions themselves.
No wonder people are confused.
Though the word insurrection was common through much of the 19th century, its usage fell off a cliff after the Civil War, and never really recovered … until Jan. 6, 2021. Similarly, no one really cared about the word sedition after the U.K.’s Seditious Meetings Act of 1817 expired the following year (save for a small blip during the First World War when the U.S. passed the short-lived Sedition Act of 1918). Following a cicada-like once-a-century trend, sedition also spiked exactly one year ago.
But examine insurrection’s twisted journey in 2021 to see how nefarious actors try to reappropriate a word.
It was the best of times in that the word reentered our lexicon, maintaining a place in our vernacular for more than just a flash. Words get sad when they fall into disuse, and insurrection has maintained its comeback, with many mainstream publications using the word to describe what happened on Jan. 6.
But it was the worst of times when you look at how the word changed in 2021. For the first nine months or so, insurrection was most commonly searched alongside words like capitol, incitement, 25th amendment, Trump — words you’d expect. But starting around September, the Google hits changed. Then you started seeing search terms like legal insurrection and legal insurrection Kyle Rittenhouse spiking in their place. If you want to twist a word’s definition, start associating it with other, seemingly unrelated terms that play into your own pet conspiracy theories. LegalInsurrection.com is a hyper-right-wing blog site and tinfoil-hat factory — in its own words, “one of the most widely cited and influential conservative websites.”
Two months later, Tucker Carlson — who hosts the top-rated show on the most watched cable “news” network — aired his Patriot Purge series, which pushed the lie that Jan. 6, 2021, wasn’t an “insurrection” at all. It’s not just Carlson; all of Fox News spent much of 2021 downplaying Jan. 6, such as when the Senate released its bipartisan insurrection report in June, and, while most news outlets covered it extensively, Fox News largely ignored it.
Fast-forward to the last week of December, when a lowly Inquirer grammar columnist made a passing, inconsequential “insurrection” reference, which prompted multiple readers to respond with letters asking, “What insurrection?”
Merriam-Webster says insurrection is “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government” — which is exactly what happened on Jan. 6, 2021. Ditto the Oxford English Dictionary: “The action of rising in arms or open resistance against established authority or governmental restraint.” The debate here should be over. If anything, the term is too mild.
But when it comes to definitions, insurrection isn’t just a tale of two cities, or even two dictionaries; it’s a tale of two Americas.
The Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and sturdy indefensibles to email@example.com.