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Mind your language

Trigger warning: this is an article about the word ‘trigger’

As a mature woman I am angry at the childish passive-aggressive mentality of the Columbia Four

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

A notion is going about that, just as readers of film reviews receive spoiler alerts, so readers of anything should get a trigger warning. Otherwise something nasty in the woodshed might trigger post-traumatic stress disorder or worse.

‘I use the phrase trigger warning myself,’ wrote Kate Maltby in a Spectator blog the other day, ‘to warn Facebook friends that they may not wish to click on a link because it is likely to automatically “trigger” flashbacks for survivors of trauma.’ That’s kind, and luckily I am not triggered by split infinitives. But she and fellow admirers of the classics are shocked by a demand from four students at Columbia University for tutors to issue trigger warnings before asking for certain authors to be studied. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the students say, ‘contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom’. The great interest is in rape (not incidents with firearms, after which you might think a trigger warning would be alarming).


My interest is language, though as a mature woman I am angry at the childish passive-aggressive mentality of the Columbia Four. In passing, when they talk of Lit Hum, they mean ‘Literature Humanities’, not literae humaniores (in which the comparative form of the adjective is important; these are more humane letters).

Trigger has been used in physiology for a few decades. In 1949 Margaret Mead happily wrote of ‘a woman’s sexual receptivity’ in which, she said, ‘now one part of the body, now another may be sensitive enough to develop a trigger effect’. I don’t think we’d better go into that.

Trigger has been, since the 1620s, something pulled to set off a trap or gun. It finds a home today in the heart of gangsta lyricists such as Lil Wayne (Lil is short, not for Lilian, but for Little). A song of his goes [TRIGGER WARNING]: ‘I’m a douchebag to these pussy ass niggas. / Hammer in my draws but I nail yo bitch.’ I’m not sure about ‘hammer in my draws’. Is it an imperative? Anyway, trigger shares an origin with trek (Dutch trekken, ‘to pull’). Perhaps Star Trek should carry a trigger warning.


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