Protocols of language

Was tinkering with some thoughts on language and added a snippet that seemed related to protocols. This is an excerpt from the rough draft:

The general model of group language development. Is it a protocol, really? It feels too organic to take the label, but there are definitely rules.

Within a group, references and jokes form the basis of a lot of language.

Selection pressures much different than for safety, as outlined in Safe New World.

Signaling with word choice

  • sound smart or sound well read
  • show you’ve experienced something
  • show trust via privileged language

Similar to fashion and beauty, language goes through natural cycles. Each generation and each subculture has different starting points. Baselines are incredibly important, as is novelty, a sense of history and the sense of unique self-expression. New things are created by trend setters, other people adopt it and then many people move on as the vibe is no longer what it once was. Previously discarded things are brought back by fresh eyes who don’t have the cultural connotations that caused them to be discarded. Previously ignored things are stumbled upon and found to be glorious, maybe even more so because past filters somehow missed them and their harkening to an idealized past.

  • Imitate - Co-opt other prominent language trends from an outgroup. Use it with a sense of irony at first, to signal you’re not actually trying to be like them. The success case is the language normalizes and the irony fades.
  • “How do you do, fellow kids!”
  • Reclaim - Co-opt language that specifically attacks your ingroup. Use it with an embellished sense of pride. Use it forever or at least until the outgroup notices your usage and stops.
    • various slurs or insults, commonly against women or homosexuals or other marginalized group
    • Boomer is a new one as generational tension has popped up in internet culture.
  • Defuse - Co-opt language that an outgroup uses for their own empowerment. Use it in earnest when discussing them or the same subject matter, but with a slight alteration. Use it forever or at least until the outgroup notices your usage and stops.
    • woke, centrist, bro

All of it happens faster on the internet!

  • more ingroups/outgroups
  • more niches of people connected = more shared experiences
  • rapid iteration

The full rough draft (largely a stream of consciousness) is here: Group Language Protocols - Google Docs


Love this, I am literally having a conversation about this with a DnD GM. Good topic, can’t wait to read your draft!


As I was reading the draft, “poison-pilled terms” came to my mind. From Poison-Depilling Problems - Venkatesh Rao (ribbonfarm):

poison-pilled terms (…) Terms that point to interesting and useful ideas but fatally compromised by a) political baggage, b) unsound analytical provenance, or c) plain distastefulness of associations.

Subjectively, a poison-pilled term feels like the right term for a thing, coined in the wrong place, by the wrong person, for the wrong reasons.

Note: This is my first comment here, I’m just a random internet user that signed up recently. If this message is not apropriate, please delete.


I would be interested to hear you rationalize about the connection. Because I had similar ideas before about language and the possibility that words can be loaded, and that their usage brings with them something that shouldn’t be there.

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The different strategies that Venkatesh proposes look (to me) very related to the excerpt. From the linked post:

I want to address the rhetorical problem of being able to talk about the useful content of a poison-pilled term. There are four basic strategies you can use:

  • Qualify the term with every use (“enshittification, but in a broader sense than Cory Doctorow”)
  • Challenge the provenance (“Actually the concept is not original to Rob Henderson; Robert Abelson came up with the more basic idea of belief possession in 1986”)
  • Appropriate the term with an inverted valence (“Enshittification is good, actually”, “luxury beliefs are good, actually”)
  • Make up new terms

The 3rd one is what DahGoon* call Reclaim, and I see the 2 first ones as tactics of Defuse.

DahGoon’s* draft has a much broarder scope; I see Venkatesh’ post as an example related to the excerpt posted on the forum.

* EDIT: I didn’t realize I wasn’t replying to the author.


I’ll hopefully return to this soon, but the above seems really relevant, so thank you!

It brought to mind an almost opposite of a poisoned tefrm, where you want to leverage the other usage or underlying connection, even though you don’t fully endorse it. Off the top, all I can think of is using “religious” when all you mean is “profound”. This is technically just a metaphor, but where you benefit from the extra overlaps. Associated with the political use of “dog whistle”, maybe?

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Associated with the political use of “dog whistle”, maybe?

Indeed, I think that knowing how much a dog-whistle is any given term (and for who is a dog whistle) is required to be able to design any strategy around its use.