It’s become one of the indispensable words of our time, a catch-all for any celebrity misstep or media mishap that could be seen as having sexist, racist, or hegemonic implications. In recent months, we’ve learned that love and loyalty, dresses and shirts, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are all problematic. Having found its way into rap lyrics and government reports, it’s now become a rallying cry for conservatives complaining about bad language on television. The word has broad, bipartisan, and seemingly irresistible appeal.
But there’s something problematic about problematic. By allowing its users to identify huge evils lurking behind every error, the word makes the slightest offense an occasion for outrage. An act need not be intentionally cruel to be problematic; it need not cause any direct harm at all. The only thing that’s required is for it to reflect certain unexamined assumptions with which we disagree. Thus, every human blunder is made the occasion for a full-blown culture war.
How did we get here? When the term first appeared in English, it looked unlikely to win any popularity contests. The 1609 play Every Woman in Her Humour (author unknown) speaks of “problematique mines, Obscurde enigmas…and incognite language.” Charlotte Brontë used the word, as did Coleridge, but it wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that it came into its own.