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MKULTRA, Semantic Change, and how writers should use words


Words are tricky things. Understanding is even trickier.

[NOTE: This is the first blog post I’ve written while people watch via Google Docs! It was fun, if a little nerve-wracking. If you’d like to see this process and join in the conversation, support me on Patreon!]

My friend Joseph Rhodes (of Marlowe Kana soundtrack fame!) reminded me that today is the 65th “birthday” of MKULTRA (also called the CIA mind control program). Very shortly, MKULTRA was a program of experiments on human subjects centered around mind control using drugs, environment, and other factors to — among other things — extract confessions, implant suggestions, and otherwise fuck with people. It’s pretty gnarly shit, and well worth the read through the Wiki article (and deeper exploration is certainly fascinating, but get ready — it goes deeeeep).

He reminded me of this because, in my book series Marlowe Kana, the title character uses a flying “Superman Punch” move affectionately dubbed the MK ULTRA. He felt that was a neat correlation, and that I should make mention of it.

It brought to mind the whole point of my calling her flying punch the MK ULTRA: Because it sounded cool, and because her nickname in the books is MK, I felt that in the books’ future (100 years from now), people would have long forgotten what the actual MKULTRA Program was or what it entailed, and instead just consider it a cool sounding vaguely military-related name for a badass finishing move that their favorite soldier / celebrity used to humiliate her enemies.

It’s called “Semantic Change” and it occurs when words are redefined mostly by the way they end up being used, versus how they were originally defined. For example: we no longer use “decimate” to mean “Behead every 10th captured soldier to sow the seeds of doubt and fear in our enemy” (or, simply, “Reduce by 1/10th”). We don’t use “penultimate” to mean “the second to last item in a list” — we usually mean “MORE THAN ULTIMATE!” in the same way Ultimate means “MORE THAN EXTREME” (especially in taco and deodorant commercials). Fortuitous ( does not mean “lucky” — it just means “by chance.” And BAE now means “my significant other” instead of simply being an acronym for British AErospace (seriously, look it up, or a Korean surname. (Interestingly enough, I just discovered that Seth Godin covers some of this in his blog post today).

Hell, even the word “Literally” LITERALLY means “Figuratively” now (even though Mirriam-Webster tries to gloss over why, it’s still a travesty).

Language is weird. But, people are weird, so it follows that the thing they predominantly use to communicate with one another would, by default, also be weird.

So, that brings me to the point of this whole mental exercise: as a writer, do I have a responsibility to use words how they were intended to be used, or how they are colloquially used? Do I have an obligation to be right, or to be understood?

This topic is a fascination of mine. In fact, it’s the entire core of the podcast I did with Joseph in 2016 called The Joe And Joe Show. The idea: a podcast made in 2096, meant to emulate the culture, technology, and authenticity of the podcasts made in 2016 (arguably the heyday of podcasting). Much the way there are people who painstakingly recreate R&B studios to record music with the exact fidelity and sound of the classic recordings, or recreate 20’s radio dramas as accurately as possible to capture the period, we wanted to show that it is nearly impossible to recreate a time period accurately, including the vernacular and terms and social meaning behind them.

Think about how you remember, say, 20 years ago — 1998. You likely remember aspects from it as they happened, in context. I can remember three very distinct cultural acts in the 90’s — the holdover neon and metal days of 1990-1991, the shift from that into pure grunge and hip hop from 92-95, and the glossy repackaging of literally any band that wore plaid or copy the Wu-Tang clan. But if television and Netflix are to be believed, anything made now taking place in the 90’s like Everything Sucks!, Everclear and Nirvana’s Bleach shared the same airwaves. People wore neon green jumpsuits while others wore plaid and cargo shorts and Doc Martens, while still others were in JNCO jeans and Hot Topic shirts.

These things did not occupy the same space. But they’re all “The 90’s” to anyone who understands “The 90’s” through a vaseline-coated lens of either sub-preteen youth or Google searches.

If you want to refer to the 80s in shorthand, you say stuff like “totally!” And “gag me with a spoon” and call people Brad. And the truth is, no one really ever said gag me with a spoon, it was one line in one movie that people satirically began using as if it was a real term (and speaking of, as if is another of those delicious 80’s-isms that I just love bandying about in conversation to see if someone remembers it. The faces that I get from both boomers and millennials is usually worth the time it takes to explain what it means).

So, in hindsight, terms that developed in the 80’s and 90’s as jokes or simple in-jokes for shows, and terms that were used in general parlance, blend together the further you get from them. No one was actually telling teachers “Eat my shorts!” a la Bart Simpson. No one really asked “Where’s the beef?” (but ironically enough, WHASSSSUUPPPPPPP! Did become a full-on cultural phrase and my God, am I glad that shit’s over).


And this leads me to MKULTRA’s use in the Marlowe Kana universe.

There are a few avenues I can use to try to explain my use of the phrase:

  1. I’m so clever, I can see 100 years into the future that certain terms — in this case, MK ULTRA — lose context and blur into whatever meaning is grafted onto it much like our understanding of penultimate or decimate,
  2. I felt like Marlowe Kana’s nickname of MK would call to mind even the most infinitesimally small nugget of memory deeply lodged in passed-along history from parent to child, such that someone thought it was a vaguely government related term and she is a military person so it makes sense,
  3. It sounded cool, and then when the topic of it comes up, I retroactively attach all this weight and gravity around the topic of repurposed words and semantic change to justify it.

Believe it or not, three is not the answer. I know, normally I get super self-effacing when this kind of thing shows up, but no, really, it’s 2. I think it’s a strange yet prevalent enough thing that words change meaning over time that I wanted to include some aspect of it in the book. There’s also the devilish novelty of something so heinous as a government agency experimenting on humans with drugs to control their mind, willfully being made “cool” by attaching it to a military celebrity who competes in future corporate-military games like Next Top Soldier. Much like Jake the Snake Roberts’ DDT, or Adam Bomb , who wrestled in Japan quite often (Don’t even get me started on “heel culture” in Japanese wrestling — we’ll be here all night).

So, what’s the right call? I have to go ahead and say that my goal as the writer is to be understood. I think that it’s incumbent upon me to share with people stories that get them to a point of acknowledgement, rather than semantic correctness. If using a word colloquially does that, then I’m all for it. Of course, this does not give me license to simply use any word any way I want. That’s not the point.

The point is that sometimes, meaning is fluid. And sometimes, you try to let the fluid flow where it’ll do the most good, rather than where someone somewhere thinks it should be.

So, happy birthday, MKULTRA. Thanks for being so deeply disturbing that my books’ future finds it cool.

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By Joe Peacock
Joe Peacock's Website Hope you’ve got some time, cause I have a lot to say… Like this latest post:

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