December 5, 2012

This is depressing.

Merriam-Webster has come out with its most-looked-up word of 2012 — the two-word pair of “socialism” and “capitalism.”

Yes, all those times we were slinging accusations of “socialism” at each other, it seems we didn’t actually, well, know what the word meant. 

I suppose our ignorance should not come as a surprise, given the way we were throwing the word around. “YOU ARE A SOCIALIST NAZI FASCIST!” we kept yelling. “YOU ARE JUST AS MUCH OF A SOCIALIST AS ATTILA THE HUN AND SIGMUND FREUD COMBINED!” 

Just last month I came across someone on Twitter talking about “capitalist redistribution day.” I don’t know what that is. I suspect he didn’t either. 

We liked the way the words sounded, I guess.

“If I had to guess what a socialist was,” we say, turning away from the television for a moment as it announced The Dire Unfolding Of Barack Hussein Obama’s Socialist Agenda, “I would say — a Hitler-person who hates America. And so socialism, I think, is when you want to take away everything that makes America great and give it to Europe, especially French people.” 

“I thought ‘socialist’ was just another way of saying ‘French,’” someone else chimes in.

“I thought a socialist was one of those people with clammy hands who won’t stop talking to you on the bus.”

“Socialists climb down the chimneys of good capitalist children and redistribute their toys. Socialists love redistributing almost as much as they hate a good day’s honest work and the American way. Sometimes they get together and redistribute for hours and hours where kids can see them, and I think it’s wrong.”

“Once,” someone adds, with emphasis, “I had a socialist in my attic, and he ate through all the insulation and was very difficult to remove, and when we finally got him out he had redistributed everywhere.” 


This one-legged capitalism is not drawn to scale.

“Capitalism?” we said. “That is another word for American-ness, and we want more of it, whatever it is. Socialists are trying to chain it up, and we want to free the capitalism so it can roam at large over the hills, eating the weakest of the cattle, as it did in pre-Colonial times.”

“Socialists wear little hats, and they want to put barricades in all the streets and sing to you.”

“Are you sure that is a socialist?” someone asks timidly. “Are you sure that is not something you saw in ‘Les Miserables.’ “

“No,” you say. “I’m sure.”

And then you dart over to Merriam-Webster. 

Still, it’s a little depressing that the words we kept hearing over and over and over again — on television, on Facebook, on Twitter, from old men in ill-fitting T-shirts with eagles on them — were, well, Emperor’s New Words. Everyone assumed someone else knew what they meant. “The capitalist,” we said confidently, “is a sort of shark-like creature that spits out your money if you hit it on the nose.”

“I am, I think, the socialist in this relationship,” we admitted to our friends. “But sometimes I want to be the capitalist, and I don’t know how to broach the topic with him.”

Perhaps this ignorance is for the best. So many perfectly good words are ruined by looking them up.

After all, what you don’t know won’t socialist you. 

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.