All writers are word hunters. They are constantly on the lookout for words they don’t know and never used. I believe I am particularly keen on new words since English is a second language to me. I recently came across a new word I did not previously know. The word is “incel”.
I came across this word when I posted a funny picture of two men intensely staring at the engine of a vintage Volkswagen while ignoring a scantily clad young woman standing near by. The caption read, “How to spot a true Beetle enthusiast”. A friend commented, “That’s how you find an incel”. I looked it up and found that it was a shorthand for “involuntarily celibate”.
I thought “why not?” There ought to be a word for this. It would cover just about half of all men married for over twenty years. And if being more interested in cars than women was the idea, myself and most of my friends fit the description. I live in sexless Japan, after all. It did not sound very strange that there would be a word for it.
So I made a few self-deprecating comments about being an incel and was surprised to receive a somewhat alarmed response saying “but you’ve never expressed any hatred towards women”. That was puzzling. If you were not interested in women, why would you bother to hate them?
That was when I looked a little further and found a very different cultural background. According to Wikipedia, “The term ‘involuntary celibate’ (shortened to ‘incel’) refers to self-identifying members of an online subculture based around the inability to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one” which is close to what I initially thought it meant, except for the part about “online subculture”. And this “online subculture” had dark undertones. “Discussions in incel forums are often characterized by resentment, misogyny, misanthropy, self-pity, self-loathing, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people. The American nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center described the subculture as ‘part of the online male supremacist ecosystem’ that is included in their list of hate groups“. That sounded very sinister indeed.
The word was coined by a college student known by her online handle name “Alana” in 1993 to describe people of both genders who were not in relationships. It was on her website that was a sort of lonely-hearts-club where people could discuss how to overcome their shyness and awkwardness. The word outlived the website and came to mean a very different thing from its original inclusive intention. She is quoted as having said that she felt “like a scientist who invented something that ended up being a weapon of war”.
As with everything else, you cannot un-invent a word you have unleashed onto the world. Some people from online incel communities have become mass shooters and mass killers. Acknowledging the dangers, several hosting services and social media companies have banned incel content. But that alone is not likely to put Frankenstein to sleep. The word may yet pick up more unintended meanings before it disappears from the general lexicon.
Reading through the articles, I came across a passage that intrigued me. It said incels tend to believe that sexually desirable women are only interested in sexually desirable men, and that men who are not visually attractive for whatever reason are destined to be ignored. The article went on, “It’s this embrace of helplessness, of their certainty of their own sexual doom, that makes the more extreme incel communities so dangerous.”
Really? But what about all the involuntarily celibate people who are not dangerous? Don’t they embrace the same thing? There are a great many peaceful people who recognize that, one way or another, they lack the facility to attract sexual activity and have come to terms with it. After dealing with the hassles, the disappointments, and the embarrassments, they have accepted what part of the food chain they belong to and came to the conclusion that it is less stressful to fiddle with machines than to join (and lose) in the dating game. Can we have a word for these people please. Or are we trying to invent another nuclear device?
Anyway, in the brief few months since the incel communities on the internet have been shut down, the word “incel” seems to have taken on a new meaning already. It is no longer sufficient to be involuntarily celibate and spiteful to qualify as an incel. You also have to hate The Third Star Wars Trilogy. I suppose hating a set of lousy movies is a lot more benign form of self-expression than mass shooting women. Let’s hope the word keeps evolving in that direction.