In the thrilling world of insults, expressions wander in and out over time like guests at a cocktail party.
Some stick around for ever, others just pop their head around the door and vanish before you know they’ve arrived.
One that slid in barely noticed a while ago but is becoming one of the more popular terms of abuse is the word “sociopath.”
Like a freshly discovered pop star or fascinating new social butterfly, it’s a word that seems to be on everyone’s lips.
It sometimes feels one cannot read a sentence in English any more without encountering its usage.
Such as here, in the Sunday Times,
Or here, in the Telegraph
And a glance at this fizzy little graph indicates that searches for it on Google over last few years in the UK, have even outstripped the more familiar “psychopath”.
Why should this be, one wonders, especially as no one really seems too clear exactly what it means? Why has the public adopted the term with such enthusiasm?
(Of course, people are queuing around the block on the internet to explain sociopath, how to spot; psychopath and sociopath, difference between; sociopath, signs you may be dating etc. but be warned before you commit, you need a lot of energy for this bullshit and you’ve really got to want it.)
Here are Saint Peacock’s theories
- It enables people to look serious and considered while dishing out abuse.
In the psychology of insults, a slight only works if it diminishes someone, such as questioning a person’s intelligence or qualities as a human.
If you can not only question a person’s suitability as an individual but also elevate yourself at the same time by using a fancy expression, then that’s a double hit.
For example, the Atlantic ran this headline about Donald Trump.
Saint Peacock believes “Donald Trump: Moron?” would have been a far superior head, but it wouldn’t have achieved the sort of chin-stroking, pseudo-academic, quasi-investigative approach that gives American journalists such a frisson.
2. Everyone secretly thinks they are a psychologist
Of course, some people are right to think that because they are, but most everyone these days fancies themselves as skilled at identifying and interpreting the dark currents that govern a personality.
And when sitting in one’s imaginary therapy studio, fingers steepled, extracting meaning from someone’s brave choice of necktie or a passive-aggressive tweet, one can either bring closure to the analysis with a crude summary (eg he’s a jerkhole), or open a world of mystery and clever character penetration by pronouncing “sociopath.”
3. Because psychopath still feels too violent
Although psychopathy is an immensely complex field that covers a vast spread of antisocial behaviour, people still assume a “psychopath” is going to methodically stove your head in with a stolen nightstick.
Calling someone a sociopath implies they share a similar borderline-criminal ignorance or disregard of social nicety, but without hinting they’ll leave you face down in a puddle of cranial matter.
4. Because its not enough to just be stupid any more
When labelling the mistakes and slip ups of our fellow citizens, academia and the entertainment industry have a lot to answer for.
Academia for their absurd language, the entertainment industry for making everyone an expert.
So now everyone thinks they could, if called on, set up and interpret a crime scene; cross examine a witness; perform basic surgery and would probably happily volunteer to try and land a plane if the crew passed out.
And when it comes correctly passing judgement on idiocy, “berk”, “prat” and their unfashionable friends fail to convey either the expertise of the judge or the possible serious mental illness of the protagonist.
Calling someone a “sociopath”, however, makes everyone feel a whole lot better.