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WORD OF THE WEEK: involution

(n.) the act of turning round or back; degeneration, the act of making worse

(n.) the act of turning round or back; degeneration, the act of making worse

It’s not often a story breaks that seemingly has the power to make the majority of a country convulse with shame. But the twenty-nine Brexit Party MEPs who took their seats in Strasbourg for the first time this week—a stellar cast including Ann Widdecombe, Annunziata Rees-Mogg, former Loaded editor Martin Daubney and Most Haunted Live! presenter David Bull—all managed it with aplomb. 

As the European anthem, Ode To Joy from Beethoven’s 9th symphony was played at the opening of the EU parliament on Tuesday, the Brexit Party stood and collectively turned their backs to the young musicians below. 

In the EU’s own words, the anthem is “not intended to replace the national anthems of the EU countries but rather to celebrate the values they share.” 

Despite some of those involved claiming that the protest had been spontaneous, it soon emerged that UKIP had done precisely the same thing back in 2014. Only this time, with tensions either side of the Brexit argument still painfully high, the protest was immediately front-page news. 

To the Remain cause, it was a stomach-churning show of bombastic disrespect. But to the Brexiters, it was merely a just and effective objection against an anthem no one standing there had voted for, and which doesn’t even represent a sovereign nation so can’t be a true national anthem anyway because the EU is undemocratic and a “false creation”. Or something. 

Never mind that we never voted for God Save The Queen, of course. And never mind that 503 democratically elected MEPs representing all member states did actually vote for Ode To Joy in 2008. 

Never mind, too, that Beethoven’s ninth was originally commissioned by London’s Philharmonic Society in 1817. And never mind that in the EU’s own words, the anthem is “not intended to replace the national anthems of the EU countries but rather to celebrate the values they share.” 

Never mind too that, as many on social media pointed out, the protest displayed unnerving parallels with a protest carried out by the Nazi Party in the Reichstag in 1930. And never mind that the orchestra playing it were apparently teenagers. Instead, seemingly all that mattered was that the Brexit Party had made their feelings known—and in doing so, had pushed the UK’s international reputation even further down the diplomatic toilet. (With Ann Widdecombe’s grotesque maiden speech acting as an acidic squirt of Harpic to help it on its way.)

As always, though, there’s a single word to encompass all of this: involution

Dating from the early seventeenth century, involution shares the same Latin root as the more familiar involve; on its debut appearance in the language in the 1610s, in fact, it originally described the act of being involved, or else enveloped, entangled, or enwrapped. 

That original sense soon fragmented, so that by the early nineteenth century involution had come to be used (chiefly in anatomical and biological contexts) to refer to anything that turns around, or else moves or grows backwards onto—and thereby envelops—itself. In this sense of a strangling, tightening retrograde movement, by the later 1800s involution had come to be applied to any process that could be seen as degenerative, regressive, or having a worsening or deteriorating effect. Or, as the Oxford English Dictionary, more succinctly defines it, involution is simply “the opposite of evolution.”

A word that can mean both “to turn around”, and “to have a ruinously retrogressive effect”? Alas, there can’t be many more appropriate options for this week’s Word of the Week.  

Illustration by @Bread_and_Ink 

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