A word can’t paint a thousand pictures, but it can have a very strong sense of meaning; however, when that word is over used and over used it loses colour and spirit to the point where it says nothing and is no longer specific. This is the case with the adjective ‘toxic’.
Thousands of people around Australia are spewing up this word, in the press and on Facebook, in cafes and dinner parties. The 2012 Australian Olympic swimming team had ‘a toxic culture’ said the journalists and the swim team’s critics. We hear all the time about a toxic atmosphere in failed businesses, in army corps and religious groups where bullying or buggery has ruined reputations and caused despair.
It’s the big word of the last ten years it seems, but where did it get its big lift in popularity? In 2009 parliamentary attack dog Tony Abbott referred to then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as a toxic bore. It certainly wasn’t the first time those two words were used together but it had a blistering affect; it resonated with the many people who not only disliked but deeply despised the prosaic, over educated manner of Rudd. My estimation is that Rudd was never really boring, instead he suffered from hubris, but that kind of word wouldn’t penetrate the public psyche like ‘toxic’. Add the word ‘bore’ and you’ve got yourself one mighty insult, boring being a sin in modern politics so heavily reliant on instant spin and flashy image.
In a sense the word is being used metaphorically. We don’t literally believe that these mannerisms, atmospheres and cultures are truly poisonous. Kevin Rudd’s close advisers were not landing in emergency wards after contact with him. But when a metaphor is overused it loses meaning and power. Orwell referred to ‘dying metaphors’ in his essay Politics and the English Language. His examples were such things as Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, etc.
But with the word ‘toxic’, which simply means poisonous, why is it better than ‘poisonous’? Because it’s hard, it starts and ends with hard consonants and it contains a hiss in the x. The word ‘slut’ comes to mind as an equally hard and powerful word. Contemporary comedians talk about dropping the ‘C bomb’ and some are making jokes about rape, but you’ll rarely hear a comedian call someone a slut. ‘Toxic’ also has an association with destruction of the environment; when a river or lake is poisoned it becomes toxic. Dangerous chemicals are toxic. So, before it became so over-used, its meaning was very strong from various socio-political angles.
Now however, its use simply points to the lack of imagination of the user. When I hear it written or spoken on TV, I can only think the user is desperate for a loaded term and no longer has the ability to describe a feeling or association in their own terms. In this sense we can say that the word ‘toxic’ is a waste word, poisoned by over use, and destined for the rubbish tip of the English language. Well, we can only hope.