Woolfer Words: “Survivor”
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The Kavanaugh hearings have ground down just about every woman I know. We watched—if we could bring ourselves to it—Dr. Blasey Ford recount one of the worst nights of her life to a panel of men who did not care, who did not get it, and who immediately set out to discredit her. And in the wake of her bravery, we began to see, everywhere, the slogan “I believe survivors.”
Survive, the verb upon which the noun survivor is based, is an Anglo-French creation, based on the Latin words that mean “to live beyond.” In English, it was first used to refer to someone who outlives another person, and then broadened to refer to someone or something that outlasted another thing. A survivor, then, was the last person standing. You could survive a person, a lease, a contract, the houseplant in the next pot over.
Those who stumbled past a traumatic event were not even given a label until the late 17th century, and when they were finally named, they were called victims. The word carries with it a connotation of helplessness, injury, and passivity. You fall victim to a scheme; victims are preyed upon. This feeling of passivity eventually tainted the word victim until it came to refer to a person who suffered because of their own choices or desires: a victim of ambition, a victim of lust. The original victims, etymologically speaking, were living beings killed as a sacrifice to a deity or supernatural power. The imagery—helpless, subdued, yet unwilling—is hard to shake.
When survivor caught up to victim in the late 1800s and began to be applied to people who had endured trauma, it was hyperbolic and jokey: a houseful of daughters, boy, he’s a real survivor. As we got through World War II, survivor began to be parceled out occasionally to trauma sufferers. But it was a label given, not one claimed. To claim survivor as your own was too gauche, too forward—and god help you if you tried to claim the word in opposition to the zeitgeist. In the 1950s and ‘60s, for instance, men who came through war and lived with shell-shock were survivors; people of color who made it through the racist terrorism of Jim Crow were decidedly not. Women who suffered sexual assault or rape continued to be called victims until the late 1970s and 1980s, when second-wave feminists wrested survivor out of the hands of men and claimed it as their own.
That’s not to say that the words survive and survivor have been kind to women. Two of the earliest uses of survive for that broader definition about outlasting a person or thing both have to do with women and come from Shakespeare’s darkest works: Titus Andronicus and The Rape of Lucrece. In both cases, the women involved were not the ones surviving: the stories of their violations survived them. Even today, there are some who claim that the use of survivor is too much hippie-dippy New Age snowflakism. Some of those people are survivors themselves who feel as though the word victim is more honest. There has been a hurt, a violation, that has turned me into smoldering cinders, a burned-out husk, and you’re singing Gloria Gaynor at me and telling me I will survive?
Survivor, the Associated Press Stylebook tells us, “is often used to describe people who have lived through physical or emotional trauma.” Survivors know the verb tense is off there: it’s not past tense, but the present continuous. You are not a survivor because you made it to the other side of your trauma; you are a survivor because the world conspires to suck you back into your trauma, to define you only as your trauma, and you keep moving forward anyway.
Survivor and victim don’t have to be lexical dichotomies, and to pretend that they are is to flatten the experience of victim-survivors. They truly only sit in opposition with each other when we let others define the terms for us. I watch the news and feel less like a survivor moment by moment; I march in the streets and yell until I’m crying and hoarse and I’m nobody’s victim. I look at the women around me, footsore and angry. If we must be victim-sacrifices, then we will burn white-hot until we melt the altar we’ve been tied to and set fire to the present. We will survive this, if only by our ability to conflagrate.
Kory Stamper is the author of the best-selling nonfiction book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, which chronicles her two-decade career as a dictionary writer for Merriam-Webster. Her writing on words and language has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and on New York Magazine’s The Cut. She is currently a full-time writer, has two adult daughters, and will not cut coffee or alcohol out of her diet though her gyno says it would help with the night sweats.