By now we’ve probably all heard the phrase “trigger warning.” It’s a contentious topic that arose from a fairly simple idea: to alert an audience of any unsettling content that may follow. Trigger warnings can be defined as an attempt to prevent an unaware encounter with certain subjects that may cause someone to unwillingly recall a traumatic event. These warnings can be found on various social media platforms, many left-leaning blogs, some college syllabi, and even in verbal discussions or presentations.
Despite the push to abolish trigger warnings in favor of “free speech,” the term itself is not as new as those who oppose it would lead you to believe.
The noun trigger appears in the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time as tricker. It’s specifically used to refer to guns. “Tricker” is common until the mid-1700s, when the form “trigger” becomes more colloquial.
Though the term “trigger warning” isn’t established for another 150 years or so, there are other terms for “triggers,” and written accounts show that people have an understanding of the two concepts. Charles Dickens famously survived a railway accident in which 10 people died and 49 were injured. He wrote in a letter to his friend E. M. Forster that he felt “curiously weak” as though he were “recovering from a mental illness.” He was unable to ever travel by rail again.
The clinical notion of triggering is established by way of psychologists’ efforts to understand war neurosis and shell shock during World War I.
First use of the figurative form: “trigger” (v.) — to set off a chain of events.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder” emerges as a term after the end of the Vietnam War.
PTSD is first recognized as a diagnosable mental disorder. Throughout the 1980s, the concept of triggering is incorporated into psychological studies, trauma support groups, and feminist communities.
The first appearance of “trigger warning” on the Internet is almost impossible to find. Similar terms and warnings preceded certain pieces of fanfiction on LiveJournal during this time; while the exact term “trigger warning” can be found before the occasional post, instances of verbatim usage are still relatively rare.
These three years see the creation of Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. With these social media platforms, the term “trigger warning” becomes mainstream.
The term begins to move back offline, most notably onto college campuses. Trigger warnings begin to be more widely requested before various media, including some television programs. They are used in a manner similar to “safe spaces”: to provide a way for people to be helped and listened to, while also holding communities accountable for the consequences of their dialogue.
In a backlash against demands for trigger warnings to be put on college syllabi and for guest speakers to be banned from campus due to their political leanings, UChicago announces that they do not support trigger warnings as an institution.
Whether or not we’ve always had a term for “triggers” or demanded “trigger warnings” for controversial content, we’ve known for over a century that individuals exposed to a stressful event are psychologically affected by their experience--and that anxiety and major stress can result from reminders of past trauma. Hence, it isn’t hard to understand how we came to develop terms for what most strongly provokes this stress and, in turn, strategies for curbing any unwelcome reminders. Love it or hate it, the concept of “triggers” and “trigger warnings” isn’t new--and it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon.