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Gulag: Note to writers and editors (2)

The incorrect use of ‘Gulag’ pales into insignificance when compared to the remarkable inappropriateness with which it is employed at times. When I recently received a Google News Alert directing me to an article titled What you need to know to survive the airlines’ gulag, I innocently imagined I had reached the nadir of Gulag references. And then the other day this popped up in my inbox: Escape from the Girl Group Gulag. I’m not even sure what the author is trying to say here, because ‘Gulag’ doesn’t appear in the body of the article. Perhaps she mean ‘ghetto’, but that doesn’t really fit either.

And it struck me that since Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago popularized the term outside Russia, the meaning of ‘Gulag’ has in fact changed. Once upon a time, it signified an arbitrary and brutal system of incarceration, but now it seems to mean ‘something mildly unpleasant in which I’d rather not be involved’, and the more outlandish the application the better.  How did this happen? It’s not just that it’s trivializing, as a comment to my previous post says. It suggests a total loss of perspective on our largely very comfortable lives, a belief that every minor inconvenience entitles one to a place on the Tragic Life Stories shelf in the local bookshop.

Ruth Derksen Siemens also suggests that ‘Holocaust’ would not be used in the same way, but that is far from being the case, as Hillary Clinton proved last year.  The problem of comparing the Gulag to the Holocaust is another can of worms altogether. More on that anon.

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