Thanks to ‘The Hunger Games,’ everything’s ‘dystopian’

Hollywood can thank “The Hunger Games” for raking in the bucks – more than $250 million overall, with $61 million over the weekend – but word lovers can thank the movie for something else: the spread of “dystopia” and “dystopian.”

The words seem to be everywhere, popping up in news articles and opinion pieces on young adult fiction, visual arts, motion pictures (and not just “The Hunger Games”), hate-crime laws, video games, a trip to the gas station and an anti-President Obama ad by Rick Santorum.

If this linguistic trend were a motion picture, it might be called “Rise of the Dystopians.” Impressive for a word reportedly first used by 19th century British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill.

Dystopia is the flip side of a word coined by another Englishman, Thomas More. He used “utopia” to describe the perfect state. “Dystopia,” which always seems to be used in combination with “bleak,” means the opposite and combines two Greek roots — “dys” (meaning bad or ill, as in dysfunctional) with “topos” (meaning place).


According to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the term came in 1868 when Mill addressed the House of Commons: “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians; they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians.”

Fortunately, “cacotopian” never caught on. At least not in movie reviews. A search of publications on Factiva shows that in the last month, “dystopian” appeared at least 1,121 times. In the previous two months combined, it showed up 633 times. That’s just print. It doesn’t include use online, where it’s all over the place.

Generally, “dystopia” and “dystopian” tend to materialize when “The Hunger Games” is the topic. But the words are worming their way into other kinds of stories:

From the Los Angeles Times: “A new dystopian ad by Rick Santorum’s campaign, the first in a series titled ‘Obamaville,’ takes one of the most cinematic approaches seen during the 2012 campaign in foretelling a future without a GOP victory in the presidential election.”


From columnist Cheryl O’Donovan in the Chicago Sun-Times: “ ‘The Hunger Games’ is a dystopian type of movie and novel. ‘Dystopia’ is a place where there isn’t any hope. Which kind of describes my experience at the gas station earlier.”

From the New York Times: Bill Keller notes that hate-crime laws have become embedded in American culture. He then writes, “But the fact that it is constitutional and commonplace does not quiet the nagging sense that hate-crime legislation resembles something from an Orwell dystopia. Horrific crimes deserve stern justice, but don’t we want to be careful about criminalizing a defect of character?”

And from Slate comes a retrospective on doomsday political ads: “Apocalypse Soon. When candidates get desperate, they try to scare you. A collection of some of the greatest dystopian campaign ads of the last 50 years.”



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