Mind Matters – Nicholas Rose on the nature of goblins

Image above: Illustration from The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book, 1933

‘Goblin mode – “a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations”

In a BBC news story this last week I read that the first Oxford word of the year to be chosen by public vote had been announced.

Witnessing the arrival of a new word excited me, but reading the article caused my mood to shift to one of deflation and irritation. Notwithstanding the winning word is actually two words being used to form a slang term, I’m just not convinced it offers us the ability to express anything particularly meaningful, adds anything new to existing language or is helpful.

I found myself wondering: is this an example of one of our fine institutions bowing down to pressure from social media driven populism? Let’s explore this new word further and you can judge for yourself.

The new ‘word’ is “goblin mode” and Oxford University Press state that it is a slang term that might be used in a sentence such as “I am in goblin mode”, further that it’s meaning is “a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations”.

Whilst reading the suggested meaning I couldn’t help thinking about whether the word goblin does really have a meaning for most of us as per the stated intention? When I think of a goblin I think of a non-human creature which may not only be naughty of character but also unpleasant in an intentioned way to others. A search of online dictionaries offers a variety of meanings but yes my first thought is broadly consistent with words such as mischievous and malevolent being used.

Reading further through the article it explained that the word came about because of the pandemic and how some people found a resistance to a return to previous norms of behaviour. I thought that we had an already perfect word for this – that being rebellious? But maybe “goblin mode” is a rebellion against the use of the word rebellion?

Isn’t there a danger that in the creation of this new word we are normalising a way of behaving that hides behaviours and experiences which should really be a warning, a call for action, the launch of a challenge or the offer of help? The words that capture the behaviour ‘unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy’ all suggest underlying negative emotions – tiredness, low mood, depression, hurt, anger and I would want to ask anyone in “goblin mode” about the feelings being experienced.

Another thought that nagged away at me was the introduction of something fictional. The suggestion we can be like something fictional is surely absurd? I think my irritation then led me to thinking that a motivation for anyone wanting to use the word is not so much rebellion but an avoidance of personal responsibility? I had an image of parents, trying desperately to understand whether their teenagers are struggling or thriving being thrown completely off course because it’s simply about being “in goblin mode”.

All our behaviours have consequences and rather than invent words that appear to suggest that we are possessed by an other-worldly spirit, is it not better to make use of perfectly good existing language? It is surely a perfectly natural experience for us all to at some point feel like doing nothing and rebelling against expectations – the idea that we might not want to apologise for it surely misses the point because the only person we are ever truly accountable to is ourselves?

If you chose to apply or adopt the word “goblin mode” to your behaviour or those closest to you then I suspect the only apology you might ever be making will be in your imagination to your younger self. It is always with hindsight that we realise a difficult behaviour was actually signalling a struggle and all too often there can be regret for not having sought or offered help.

I end up thinking about how this new word “goblin mode” whilst representing something negative and for me sitting uncomfortably with the wonderful language already available to us, might be a force for good if we see it as a way to identify something that needs attention?

Nicholas Rose

UKCP accredited Psychotherapist

Psychotherapy, counselling, relationship therapy and coaching.

PGDip, MA, Adv Dip Ex Psych

Nicholas Rose & Associates
Counselling, psychotherapy and coaching for children, adults, couples and families.


Author of Better Together 

Read more blogs by Nicholas Rose

Read the previous one – Mind Matters – Do we really need to talk about our feelings?

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Read a profile of Nicholas here

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