In March this year, the entertainment company Netflix released the television series 13 Reasons Why. The fictional series, based on a novel by Jay Asher, involved graphic depictions of rape and suicide, prompting viewers to petition Netflix to add clear trigger warnings to the series’ opening credits.
Also in March this year, British prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, beginning Britain’s two-year exit process from the European Union.
The link between these two seemingly unrelated events, if you haven’t already worked it out, is the word trigger. First used solely as a noun (‘A movable catch or lever the pulling or pressing of which releases a detent or spring, and sets some force or mechanism in action’), trigger first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1621 as tricker and this form was still commonly used until around 1750. Trigger originates from the Dutch ‘trekken’, which means ‘to pull’. Hence, we pull a trigger.
For a long time, trigger was only used in the literal sense to talk about the trigger of a gun or another mechanism. It wasn’t until around 1978 when post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was first recognized as an official diagnosis that the figurative sense of the noun trigger became common. In psychological terms, a trigger is a stimulus that causes a PTSD sufferer to be emotionally transported back to their original trauma. It could be a particular sight, sound or smell, for example a song on the radio or the smell of a brand of perfume or aftershave.
The use of trigger in a PTSD context has also helped form the term trigger warning, which was added to oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com early last year. Trigger warning is defined by oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com as a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. that warns readers or viewers that the subsequent media contains material that they may find upsetting. Advisory labels and cautions are not a new phenomenon. We are used to seeing age guidance ratings on films and hearing the words ‘with scenes some viewers may find upsetting’ before a particularly dramatic episode of our favourite soap opera. But the digital age and our increasing reliance on the Internet created the need for a simple term that could preface any social media post containing potentially upsetting content. Step forward trigger warning, or TW for short.
Whilst the term trigger warning originated online, it soon moved offline. Recently there have been calls for trigger warnings before university lecture material, on book covers, and, as highlighted above, at the beginning of television programmes. With such strong demand for the series 13 Reasons Why to carry clearer trigger warnings, Netflix had no choice but to comply. In May 2017 a trigger warning was added to the opening credits of the first episode in the series to caution viewers about the graphic content and to point them towards possible sources of support if necessary. Material can now be described as being ‘triggering’, an adjectival form to describe content that, intentionally or unintentionally, causes emotional distress.
As mentioned above, Article 50 was controversially triggered in March this year. Why was Article 50 triggered rather than activated or launched? I suspect it’s because trigger is the only word that successfully and neatly communicates the idea of the official start of something, much like pulling the trigger of a starting pistol in a race. The most appropriate synonyms tend to be phrasal verbs such as set off, give rise to, and set in motion, all of which would be less succinct than simply trigger, and the latter two would take up extra precious character spaces in tweets, Facebook statuses and news headlines. A cardinal sin in a world where we commonly read articles on six-inch mobile phone screens.
It seems safe to say that over the past 400 or so years trigger has managed to trigger a lot more than just the movable catch of a lever. Who knows what it will trigger in the next 400 years…
Stacey Bateman is a Production Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Spain and worked for a sports and local interest publisher in Derby before joining OUP in 2011.