9 Innocent-Sounding Phrases That Mean Something Different to a QAnoner

These manipulative buzzwords might be all over your social media feed. My fascination with secret code languages took root under the monkey bars. It was 1999, when a fellow seven-year-old in jelly sandals taught me the simple phonological pattern of Pig Latin.

Ig-pay Atin-lay. It felt like a superpower. Upon mastering the language, I was an insider, and so was everyone else who knew it. We were cool. Intellectually superior. Morally superior, even. Anyone who couldn’t scramble their syllables like we could was simply not one of us. With language alone, power could be exercised invisibly, without leaving a trace of evidence.

Two decades later, I’d become a sociolinguist, dedicating my life to figuring out what other clandestine powers language can wield.

Recently, my curiosities have led me to the language of cults — the subject of my forthcoming book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism. Our culture tends to provide pretty weak explanations for why people wind up in fanatical fringe groups, mostly nebulous talk of “mind control” and “brainwashing.” But brainwashing is nothing but a metaphor. What’s really going on are techniques of conditioning and coercion that have everything to do with language.

With powerful euphemisms, emotionally charged buzzwords, renamings, chants, mantras, and even hashtags, language is the key means by which all degrees of cultish influence occur. Without language, there are no beliefs, no ideologies, no cults at all. Words are what squash independent thinking, obscure truths, divide people into an “us” and a “them” (the Pig Latiners vs. everyone else). When it comes to cult influence, we picture white robes and remote communes, but we wind up missing the fact that the most potent ingredient in the recipe of zealotry is something we can’t even see.

Most urgently, I’ve been examining the dialect of QAnon, which is developing in real time before our ears. QAnon, a big tent cult of conspiracy theorists, continues a centuries-old pattern of apocalyptic-minded groups who assemble around doomsday predictions and ideas of dark forces secretly controlling everything around us. The difference is that the medium of social media — QAnon’s stand-in compound in the woods — has encouraged the formation of countless QAnon offshoots.

QAnon isn’t just a cabal of far-right extremists who believe Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of children; because algorithms feed us only what we want to see, they’ve paved the way for so-called “Pastel QAnon” denominations, consisting of less outwardly cultish “conspiritualists” (a portmanteau of “spiritual” and “conspiracy theorist”). These are New Age types whose paranoias might be less focused on evil liberals worshipping the devil and more on “brainwashed doctors” forcing “dangerous” Western medicine on their children. In practice, their politics are no less disturbing, but because of their vague language and inviting aesthetic, they’re able to hide in plain sight online.

QAnon’s allure (which is mostly the promise of exclusive knowledge unknown to us “sheeple”) is constructed with an exhaustive glossary of special language: insider-y acronyms and keyboard symbols, “us”/“them” labels, and loaded buzzwords. Most of their rhetoric is extremely broad on purpose, both to mask off-putting specifics about the ideology and to leave space for it to morph and change when convenient. Meanwhile, not unlike a horoscope, followers project whatever they want to believe onto the language. And again, because QAnon is headquartered on social media, the vocabulary is always changing — branching off into different “dialects” of QAnonese, in part so that social media algorithms don’t recognize the code words and hashtags, flag them, and block the accounts from spreading dangerous rhetoric. New language, and rules for how to use it, are constantly being introduced. And some of it sounds totally innocent… at least to those who don’t know what to listen for.

Here are just nine of the many words and phrases that might mean something totally innocuous in everyday English but, when wielded by a QAnoner, are more dangerous than they seem.

This self-help buzzword (which basically describes certain ideas people have about themselves that prevent them from realizing their dreams) has been weaponized by so many cultish New Age figures, including NXIVM’s Keith Rainere. It’s used to gaslight people into thinking their valid fears or concerns are just their own “false thoughts.” When a QAnoner or conspiritualist says “limiting beliefs,” they’re just talking about any possible conflict with their ideology, from the refusal to indulge in theories about the Deep State or to the choice not to leave the house without a mask.

Here’s a term with several meanings throughout politics and government, but that has been reduced to a hallmark QAnon buzzword with one singular, incontestable definition. It basically refers to the decades-old New Age belief that our minds and bodies have the power to heal anything on their own; so, if someone falls ill, then it’s their fault and a sign that they are simply an inferior human. (In cult contexts, “sovereign” also has origins in 70’s-era white nationalism.)

A classic stock phrase QAnoners use to promptly shut down any questions or snags in their theories. In the image of self-aggrandizing cultish figures like L. Ron Hubbard and Keith Rainere, QAnon-to-Conspirituality (Q-to-CS) types love to co-opt scientific-sounding terms, and “research” is one of them. Of course, because of their profound distrust in mainstream institutions (academia, media), “research” in this sense has nothing to do with peer-reviewed studies or reputable news sources, but instead refers to the process of falling down an online rabbit hole, revealing a fantasy world of explanations for things that feel inexplicable.

To me, this is slang for “mood” or “atmosphere,” but to a QAnoner, “vibrations” and “frequencies” have the same definition that they do in many cultish New Age groups: you “vibrate” either on a “high frequency” or “low frequency,” and that metaphysical measurement is what determines whether or not you’ll get sick, experience emotional trauma, or endure other kinds of pain.

An antivaxx/anti-mask slogan appropriated from the pro-choice movement. (“Forced penetration” is another phrase purloined from feminist politics and applied to vaccination.)

A diplomatic-sounding phrase used to create the facade of taking a measured approach to a topic. It tends to couple with sea-lioning: “a harassment tactic by which a participant in a debate or online discussion pesters the other participant with disingenuous questions under the guise of sincerity, hoping to erode the patience or goodwill of the target to the point where they appear unreasonable.”

There’s little a Q-to-CS type loves more than pseudo-psychiatry, and “trauma” is an especially hot topic. QAnoners love to speak in unsubstantiated absolutes; so, while trauma to the average English speaker generally describes the result of a distressing event in one’s life, which can have long-term effects, to a QAnoner, “trauma” is an emotionally charged buzzword that has no real meaning (and yet applies to everyone). QAnoners tend to preach mental health practices that most accredited psychotherapists denounce (like “recovered memory therapy”), as they believe physical illness (including COVID) is the result of unhealed (or even unremembered) childhood trauma.

Another innocuous-sounding self-help axiom used as a stock expression similar to “limiting beliefs.” According to Q-to-CS ideology, COVID (among other natural phenomena) was intentionally caused by government fear propaganda as a means to control us.

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