Any artist who writes, acts, sings, or performs comedy works in words, and just like any other material an artist can use to create, words can come to be used differently over time, or they may be used differently by one group of people than another. Here are just a few words and terms whose use in contemporary American popular culture is a bit different than their original meaning or context.. Including these words here is not meant to imply support or criticism of any use of the word. These are only described to generate ideas or notes for creating characters, routines, or other works of art in which the words might be used.
Triggered/Triggering: This is a hated word for many, one that causes some listeners and readers to cringe, roll their eyes, and ignore the writer or speaker. There are two reasons for this. One, the contemporary, popular meaning is extremely broad. Those classified as “Millenials (born 1981-1996) and younger seem to use this term the most, but it is not exclusive to those forty and under. People describe themselves as “triggered” or something as “triggering” when they mean they find it irritating, upsetting, annoying, disgusting, depressing, discouraging distressing,anxiety provoking, or in any other way bothersome.
Another reason this term tops the “hated words list” for many is because they think the person using it in place of so many other words or saying they’re “triggered” when they are in fact “dismayed” or “discouraged” or “upset” by something, unfairly equates the normal ups and downs of everyday life with the experiences of people who are “triggered” in the original sense of the word. Before “triggered” came to mean “upset in any way,” it was strictly used to describe the experiences of those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, a serious and often debilitating response to experiencing trauma, such as war or violent crime.
Lolita: In popular American culture, a “Lolita” is an attractive, seductive girl or very young woman who is just over the legal age of consent, or who is legally an adult, but still very immature and inexperienced and completely inappropriate for the man who is attracted to her. Popular films such as 2006’s “Mini’s First Time,” in which an older teen begins working as an escort and seduces the man who is officially in a relationship with her mother, are described as “Lolita” stories. There is also a fashion style known as “Lolita style” or “Lolita fashion.” Originating in Japan, the aestetic of “Lolita fashion” centers around looking “cute” and maintaining a doll-like appearance.
But there is nothing seductive, cute, or in any way pleasant or enticing about the novel “Lolita,” the source of the term. In Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, whose name is simply a nickname for “Dolores,” is far from sexy or seductive. And Humbert, the man who tells the story and interacts with the original “Lolita,” is neither the reluctant target of her attentions we so often see in popular “Lolita” films, nor is he simply someone who admires her for being “cute,” as one might react to a fashion trend. Both the character of Humbert and the plot are repulsive, and Lolita is a tragic figure. She’s a child, and he’s a pedophile who grooms and molests her.
Safe space (as used on college campuses): The most contemporary meaning of the term “safe space” refers to a place where people can go when they become distraught over anything that may be happening on their campus, or in the world around it. In such a space, the person is shielded from dealing with whatever may be causing distress, and is allowed to perform a variety of non-threatening, relaxing activities such as looking at pictures of cute animals, coloring, or sharing their feelings with someone else who is not permitted to criticize or judge them. Some people praise this as a necessary and compassionate way to protect the mental health of the community. Others criticize this practice, arguing that it teaches people to make everything about themelves and their feelings rather than learning to analyze, debate, and work to solve problems in society. Regardless of whether you support this or find it ridiculous, the term “safe space” meant something different many years ago.
“Safe space” used to refer specifically to a place people could go if they believed themselves to be in physical danger, a place that was always open, well-lit, and staffed with someone who could call security to arrange for someone to ride or walk home with a member of the community who was being followed or harassed, or who was intoxicated or otherwise unable to safely navigate their way home alone. Later, when paired with symbols of LGBTQ pride, it came to refer to a staff member or organization who would not shun someone for being a member of the LGBTQ community. The term may still be used in the two older ways in some communities.
Journey: In its traditional meaning, the word “journey” always refers to a long, usually meaningful, physical trip a person might take. If you and your friends travel from your hometown of Utica, New York to Tokyo, Japan, you might describe that as your “journey” to Tokyo. But if your friend called and asked if you’d like to have dinner at the Japanese restaurant four blocks from your apartment, you would be very unlikely to describe such an outing as your “journey” to dinner.
Today, the word “journey” is still used in its original manner when describing a physical trip, but it is also used to describe anything someone might go through, or a process someone might move through to reach a goal. Some people restrict their use of the word “journey” in this way to life altering, important events. A person describing what they went through during treatment for cancer or Covid-19 or a broken leg or back may describe it as a journey. Or they might describe something they must cope with for their entire time on this earth, such as Cerebral Palsy or a mood disorder, as a “journey.” Others use “journey” to describe things that are much more lighthearted and trivial, such as reaching a personal or professional goal. You might hear someone speak of their “Spanish journey” when describing their efforts to learn the language, or describe their home makeover as “quite a journey.”
Having a hustle/hustling: Seventies disco dance fad cracks aside, someone “having a hustle” used to imply that the person earned money in a less than honorable, upfront manner. Their method of earning money may have been illegal and/or unethical, or it may have just been a little less than completely upfront and honest, such as insisting that their product and their product alone would effectively clean your house siding or give you long lashes or provide all the nutrition you need, when it was the same cleaning method, mascara, or vitamin supplement available from several other sources.
Today, “having a hustle” or “hustling” is often used to describe someone who is entepreneurial. It means they are doing some type of work for themselves, with the goal of raising money. A person who tutors in a subject outside of their career field, does lawn care to help support their career as an artist, or refurbishes and sells furniture in addition to working a traditional nine to five office job “has a hustle.” If the term “side hustle” is used, it means the work is done to supplement their steady income.
How might your character or scene change if a word is used in an older meaning, versus a more modern one, or if you add a character who uses one of these terms in a more contemporary way?