The current issue of The Economist challenges “the illiberal left.” Among other related phenomena, “the espousal of new vocabulary … is affecting ever more areas of American life. It has penetrated politics and the press.” The magazine observes, perhaps a bit late, that “it is starting to spread to schools.” How can the wokes succeed in changing common terms to advance their ideological agenda? Governments certainly help with their indirect subsidies to universities if not their open support of woke causes.

In an appendix to his novel 1984 (published in 1949), George Orwell wrote, somewhat prophetically:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.

From fiction to reality, meet the word “societal.” It was apparently invented by a Minor Hugo (probably the pen name of Luke James Hansard), a utopian British communist and follower of Charles Fourier. (See Minor Hugo, Hints and Reflections for Railway Travellers and Others; or A Journey to the Phalanx [London, 1843], pp. 157 and 192.) The word really took off only in the 1960s and may have receded since.

As far as I can see, the word is mainly used in soft sociology and social activism. The Encyclopedia Britannica has no entry for “societal” but mentions the word twice in its article on sociology. The Dictionary of Sociology (Oxford University Press, 2014) only has an entry for “societal reaction,” referring to the specific theory of social deviance and control. The Blackwell Dictionary of Modern Social Thought (Blackwell Publishing, 2003) has no entry for the word. Perhaps it is used by ethnologists and anthropologists, but it does not seem to be frequent.

In general dictionaries, it appears as a non-technical word meaning the same as “social.” For example, the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry “societal,” defined as “Of or relating to society.”

My hypothesis is that the word is mainly used to convey the impression of something more scientific than the mere “social” of both common mortals and economists. Interestingly, it has also become popular in the corporate PR that bows obsequiously to woke fads by paying attention to the corporations’ “societal impact.” It is a favorite of the public health movement, which is trying hard to look scientific while eschewing the scientific analysis of economics. The term gives a scientistic look-and-feel to social balderdash.

Note that welfare economics has gone quite far in the analysis of society without using the term “societal.” Nobody speaks of, say, a “societal welfare function.”

There is no need for another word to say “social,” especially one that carries some baggage from 19th-century utopian communism. In his book The Fatal Conceit (University of Chicago Press, 1988), F.A. Hayek argued that many words related to discourse on society are part of “our poisoned language.” In the latter, he included the word “social,” but I suggest that “societal” (which Hayek may not have encountered) is worse given its scientistic look-and-feel.