In my previous post on the TV Tropes/Something Awful saga, I mentioned a poster on the latter referring to the Tropers as “broken”. Actually, he/she wasn’t the first to use that term and nor was he/she the last. It’s been quite regularly used in the TV Tropes mockery thread (which is still going) and I have seen it elsewhere on the internet. I presume the usage is originally an American one, as so much internet English is, but what particularly interests me is that it is applied to people who are regarded as not really being functioning human beings, but to whom little sympathy need be shown.
The first bit isn’t particularly surprising or new. Referring to someone as “a broken man/woman” has been done in British English for a very long time. Used straight it has overtones of the sort of purple prose you would get in Victorian novels or Barbara Cartland-style romantic fiction (“his son’s betrayal left him a broken man, and he did not live long thereafter”), meaning that nowadays you’re more likely to hear it used for humour. A critic reviewing a particularly terrible film might claim to have “staggered out of the cinema a broken man”, for example. However, in that usage, there’s usually a sympathetic overtone, a suggestion that the broken person has become that way through some terrible experience. The American/internet version simply seems to mean that the person is truly screwed-up and probably has been all along, with overtones of “it’s basically their fault”.
However, it does pre-date the internet. I know this through the work of those well-known linguists, semantic authorities and cultural commentators, the Texan heavy metal band Pantera, who in 1994 had a hit with “I’m Broken”, a punchy little number that I happen to have on a compilation of 100 Rock Hits I once bought from Woolworths. I’ve just looked up the lyrics to “I’m Broken”, and it sounds as if it’s meant to be about just how much your Mum and Dad can fuck you up. This would make sense, as Pantera are cited as an influence on later American metallers like Korn whose oeuvre is full of that kind of thing; but I have to say, you’d struggle to tell from the actual song, on which most of the lyrics are inaudible. The singer, who I thought was called “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, but apparently wasn’t, clearly decided that the appropriate vocal stylisation was somewhere between “demon from the bowels of hell suffering haemorrhoids” and “pig being ritually slaughtered.” Sung over a fierce guitar riff which is courtesy of Dimebag Darrell, all you can really make out is “Look at me now!”, in a tone suggesting that refusal to look may lead to your legs being broken, “I’m broken!” and “you’re broken!” Incidentally, it is unlikely that any of the surviving members of Pantera would be in the least bit fazed by any of these remarks on their big hit (Dimebag Darrell was sadly murdered by a crazed “fan” some years ago).
So American rockers have been using “broken” for “dysfunctional” for years – the more recent band whose name is shared by this post were clearly unimpressed by the social opportunities available to them, for instance. The overtone of lack of sympathy is new, partly no doubt due to the anonymous cruelty often displayed on the internet, which I have mentioned before too. However, I can’t help thinking that, in the suggestion that the broken person is a hopeless case, it also displays a weird mix of the ideas of Original Sin and eternal damnation believed by America’s first settlers and the genetic determinism popular with some of its inhabitants today. If you’re messed-up and can’t function in society, it’s your bad genes, your inherent wickedness, in a word, your fault. “You’re broken!” as Pantera would put it. It is strange that Victorian writers, who came from a period as intensely religious as anywhere in the modern US, should come across as less harsh and more forgiving than some modern people. But then the Victorians weren’t posting on the internet.