If understanding oneself is hard enough, putting words to that slippery, elusive substance is nothing less than a Herculean feat. A host of factors contributes to self-conception and self-description – into how we package ourselves into language. One rather fun way of comparing perception and reality is through the medium of online dating sites. In that context, let’s examine the use of the word “weird.”
As adolescents, many of us railed against the notion of being “normal.” To be normal implied abandoning one’s individuality in favor of a soulless cubicle or loveless marriage – or whatever depressing image we associated with our parents. To be normal was high treason against our complex, inimitable snowflake souls that would not be hemmed in or dictated to. As we grew older, many of us learned that our most profound and original musings belong to other people, that the rage and revolution that compelled us to cast stones at the status quo would lose steam, that the desire to be incomparable was curtailed by lack of both talent and persistence, that the dreams whispered into tear-moistened pillows would be forfeited. Then we went on with our grown-up lives.
Not all of us took that approach, though, as evidenced by the abundance of dating site users that describe themselves as weird. The movies they watch are “weird”; the music they prefer is “weird”; they run with a pretty “weird” crowd and occupy their time “generally being weird”, interrupted only by the occasional bathroom break. For the “weird” demographic, mundane habits are treated like whimsical flights of fancy through rarefied air. Preferences are affixed with the honorific “I’m weird like that,” and imaginary naysayers are cautioned to move along if they find a particularly poignant bit of personality to be “weird.”
The canon of weirdness, perhaps more than any of the other phenomena described, speaks to the paradox of individuality-community dynamics. In-group terms have the effect of simultaneously highlighting singular qualities and unifying swaths of the population under their banner. A rallying cry for those who feel excluded from the mainstream, they hearken back to the lonely soul’s search for kinship.
Weird is a badge of honor, having lost its original meaning almost 500 years ago. Perhaps something in the unexpected twists of its etymology renders the word’s meaning unpredictable, its connotation delightful for seekers of the novel. Originally, this term’s Proto-Indo-European antecedent wert meant “to turn”; as it snaked its way through Saxon, Norse, German, and English, “weird” took on the meaning of fate, from the idea that destiny is something that turns into or becomes manifest.
The English language has its best-loved bard to thank for changing all of that. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth rendered them so odd and unsettling that he singlehandedly shifted the word’s colloquial implications. Rather than being “weird” because they foretold fate, they stood out for their strange appearance and ominous presence. Now, at a time when standing out is a competitive sport and prerequisite for success, the catchiest language is oftentimes not the most complimentary.