No laughing matter: why “triggered!” jokes are not and will never be funny

By Amanda Bertsch

Opinion articles reflect only the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the editorial board, the Denobis staff, or Tri-City College Prep. 


The word “triggered” has a number of useful functions. In its most simple definition, it is an expression of causation: the dog’s hair triggered an allergic reaction. Recently, it has also taken on a medical meaning. Leading mental health website Psych Central defines a trigger as something that elicits a strong memory or flashback of a past trauma. Someone who is triggered forcibly relieves a traumatic experience in their mind; such experiences are commonly sexual assault, memories from war, or other violent events. Content warnings, sometimes referred to as “trigger warnings,” are often used to warn people of possibly triggering content.

This brings the story to today, when the word “triggered” has become the newest internet darling and crept into the casual conversations of many high school students as well. Some people exclaim “triggered!” at every slight offense, from water spilling to someone correcting a grammar error. Jokes about triggering also extend to trigger warnings, with some jokingly putting warnings for “words,” “humanity,” or “opinions,” among others, on their online content.

Proponents of using this word jokingly often argue that words are “just words,” that they are simply joking around, or that restriction of the use of a word is a violation of their 1st Amendment rights. All three of these claims have a fundamental error that lies in an understanding of words.

A word is a series of syllables, yes, but it also carries power. Many words are broken down by philosophers into two parts: a description and an attitude. As Crash Course explains, the description is the simple, dictionary meaning (sometimes called the denotation): for instance, murder means the act of killing someone. The attitude, by contrast, is the connotation or implication of a word. Murders are inherently wrong; a mercy killing or justified killing might exist, but there is no “good murder” or “morally justified murder.” Murder is understood to carry a negative attitude, and no amount of justification on the part of someone using this word can change that attitude. Because murder is so deeply tied to this attitude of immorality, it is a word with great weight. This, incidentally, is exactly why the courts discuss “homicide” instead of “murder” cases. While the two words have the same description, “homicide” has a much less powerful attitude and is overall a less influential word on a jury than “murder.”

Murder is a so-called thick concept, an idea described in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy as one that has “sparked debates” recently. Thick concepts are those that contain both a description and an attitude: that is, words that describe something while simultaneously passing judgement on it. Thin concepts are those that only do one or the other. “Dead” describes something as deceased and “bad” passes judgement on an action or person, but “murderer” describes someone who has killed and judges them as bad.

To use a less trivial example, let us return to the words “trigger” and “triggered,” as used in a psychological context. A trigger is something that causes an emotional reaction; this is a description. Saying that something is a trigger does not pass a value judgement—simply because someone finds a smell to invoke memories of a rape experienced with the same smell pleasant does not make that odor inherently bad. Thus, a trigger is a thin concept. However, triggered not only describes an emotional state, it conveys a number of judgements. Understanding these judgements takes us back to the issue of mental health in America.

Mental illnesses remain highly stigmatized. A Psychology Today article described mental health symptoms as “threatening and uncomfortable” to most people. A National Institute of Health study found that PTSD patients were likely to be thought of as “dangerous,” “violent,” and “crazy.” Since people suffering from PTSD are the largest group likely to be triggered, this means that much of this stigma transfers to that word as well. If someone is triggered, they are a pain, overly sensitive, even weak.

This association of weakness and being triggered did not always exist. However, humor using the word triggered has a tendency to greatly exaggerate or mock the use of trigger warnings. If a sophomore boy can be “triggered!” when he drops his pencil, surely a veteran would be remiss in using the same word to describe his reaction to fireworks that evoke memories of a war zone. The latter person is part of the group that triggered and words like it were intended to be used by, but the casual and degrading use by people not in this group has trivialized the word to the point of making it less useful for those who need language to describe their condition.

Humor has a very important social function: it determines the boundaries of acceptability. If it is acceptable to reduce “triggered” to nothing more than a punchline to a joke, the bottom text on a meme, linguistically meaningless garbage equivalent to other overused words like “lol” or “same,” what is left for those who used this word to describe real medical conditions?

Some tout the right to free speech as an excuse for using this word in inappropriate and joking contexts. However, the first amendment right to free speech does one thing and one thing only: it prohibits the government or other authorities from limiting public speech. The amendment does not give all citizens free permission to use whatever offensive terms they please, or to be cruel and callous in society; it is simply a guarantee that one cannot be thrown in jail for insulting the government’s policies. Indeed, the goal of free speech is to promote open dialogue, so jokes that trivialize and insult the mentally ill are the exact opposite of the ideas this amendment was intended to protect. In any case, the issue with triggered! jokes is not whether one is legally able to say them, but whether one is morally justified in doing so.

Now, some might be saying, there’s no reason to jump to these conclusions. Perhaps triggered! jokesters are simply using the other definition of the word, the one that simply means causation with none of this stigma attached. However, consider the use of that word. Triggered in the sense of causation is a transitive verb: it needs the context of a direct object (in other words, a noun following that the word acts on). One could not simply say “the peanuts triggered.” The sentence must answer the question of what was triggered: in that case, perhaps an allergic reaction. However, triggered in the psychological sense is referring to a state of being where trauma is invoked. Someone can be triggered, period, end of story. There is no noun used. Since triggered! jokes lack a direct object, triggered cannot be considered to be used in the sense of a transitive verb and so it by necessity carries the other meaning.

Unfortunately, jokesters lament, there are simply no other words to express this sentiment. There is no word other than “triggered!” that expresses a feeling of malcontent with something that has occurred. If only there was a word like “outraged,” “shocked,” “offended,” “surprised,” “appalled,” “disgusted,” “upset,” “insulted,” “affronted,” “aggrieved,” “displeased,” “hurt,” “wounded,” “disgruntled,” “annoyed,” “exasperated,” “indignant,” “irritated,” “vexed,” “irked,” “stung,” “galled,” “nettled,” “resentful,” “riled,” “miffed,” “aggravated,” “pissed,” “scandalized,” “incensed”…. I could go on. Any one of these words could be used as a less loaded replacement for “triggered” in casual speech.

This is not to say that people who joke about being triggered are horrible people, by any means, or even that they intentionally insult those with mental illness. On the contrary, most people making these jokes have nothing against the mentally ill. They are simply unaware of or unwilling to accept the implications of the words they choose. Unfortunately, an individual does not have the power to redefine every word they use. Words carry power, and words that are also thick concepts doubly so. Using triggered as a joke, however innocently intended, is inherently problematic and more than a little insulting to those who struggle with triggers in their daily life. When so many other alternatives exist, with more than a few carrying comedic value of their own, it seems ludicrous to use mental gymnastics to defend such a weighted word for the sake of a shallow joke.