Lost words

Alastair Somerville
2 min readFeb 27, 2021

There is a theory that people with privilege fund and patronise the arts to prevent futures that threaten their privilege. This generally works but went catastrophically wrong (from their perspective) with the Salons and the French Revolution. This is the idea of the arts acting as reconnaissance for conservatism.

What this means is that the expansion of vocabulary and ways of expressing novel ideas is being watched in order to ensure it does not enable radical change. The most extreme version of this ideal is explained in George Orwell’s 1984 and the explanatory note on Newspeak. The possibility of controlling language to make rebellion indescribable and thus impossible.

Pulling back from that fictional extreme, there is enough to worry about now when trying to explain ideas but finding new words have already been colonised by meanings that privilege people with power.

This is the problem of radical futures lost because we lost the words to describe them.

This post is just a list of words that appeared to offer change but now seem to maintain continuity. It is short at the moment as I seek more examples. Any ideas are appreciated.

Lost words

These words are mostly lost to a corporate or transactional sense of meaning. However, some are lost to being only used by politicians or journalists in negative contexts. They could have offered radical change but their meanings are now tightly wound around either business models and consumerism or a conservative sense of criticism.

  • Resilience
  • Shared Economy
  • Political correctness
  • Placemaking
  • Growth Mindset
  • Living wage
  • User centred design
  • Flow
  • Climate crisis
  • Gig Economy
  • Inclusive design
  • Woke
  • Human centred design

The point here is that hijacking words and meanings is something that people with power are good at and they have the corporate systems to enable it. Words and metaphors are fundamental to communicating change. How can we stop change being prevented because powerful people change the meaning of what we want to say?



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX