Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D., FCEP
“Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name. But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.” ~ Rolling Stones
“Sympathy for the Devil” is considered among the greatest archival ballads composed by the Rolling Stones. Released on December 6, 1968, the track raised the eyebrows of religious as well as secular-minded commentators who mused that the Stones may have “crossed a line” that a morally just and sound society would never dream of traversing! Mick Jagger confessed that he got the idea for the song after reading the works of French poet Baudelaire as well as a novel entitled The Master and Margarita(1967) by Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov.
Unfortunately, the cultural zeitgeist appears to have recently changed. In fact, having invited online supporters to select their choice for the Oxford Dictionary’s 2022 Word of the Year, a group of over 340,000 voters preferred the evocative phrase “goblin mode” over the words “metaverse,” and “#IStandWith.” In so doing, humanity may have unashamedly disclosed its sympathy for the devil.
According to the illustrious Lexicon, “goblin mode” is a neologism that “reflects the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past twelve months.” Previous words selected by Oxford include “vax” (2021), “climate emergency” (2019), and “selfie” (2013). Historically, the word of the year has been selected by an internal team of lexicographers. Of the 340,000 people who participated in this year’s more egalitarian selection process, “goblin mode” received 318,956 votes (93 percent). While “metaverse” was the runner-up with 14,484 votes, the hashtag “#IStandWith,” received 8,639 online ballots. However, by selecting a word that glamorizes behavior that even the Oxford Dictionary itself defines as “unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations,” society has folded malevolence into its own image.
According to the BBC, “goblin mode” first appeared on Twitter in 2009. The redolent expression went viral on social media in 2022 as Covid lockdown restrictions eased and people ventured out of their homes. Seemingly, it captured the prevailing mood of individuals who rejected the idea of returning to normal life. According to Casper Grathwohl, President of the Oxford Dictionary, “goblin mode gives people the license to ditch social norms and embrace new ones. By choosing ‘goblin mode’ as the Word of the Year,” he said, “people are embracing their inner goblin.”
Like the Slacker Movement of the 1990s, “goblin mode” encompasses the rejection of societal expectations and the acceptance of living in an unkempt, hedonistic manner without concern for one’s self-image.” Some say, that the popularity of “going goblin” may be linked to a rejection of the carefully curated lifestyles often presented by social media users. The trend has also been linked to a manner of coping with the effects of the Covid pandemic on society since “goblin mode” has also been described as a way of life that gives people permission to reject societal norms and embrace their basic instincts.
Unlike Oxford, Collins Dictionary declared the term “permacrisis” (an extended period of instability and insecurity”) as its 2022 Word of the Year. Dictionary.com, on the other hand, selected the word “woman,” as its usage spiked significantly (1,400%) in relation to separate high-profile events, including the moment when a question about the very definition of the word was posed to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at her US Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
In the final analysis, however, “goblin mode” is a better commentary on humanity’s self-perception than on current political or social observations. The phrase strikingly melds together “goblin,” a self-indulgent mischievous temperament, with “mode,” a term associated with videogames that denotes a self-indulgent state that can be switched on and off according to one’s mood. Online, it works as an anarchic reaction to more cultivated style choices, such as the “cottagecore,” “soft girl,” and/or “bloomcore” aesthetics. More generally, “goblin mode” can be seen as a kind of a coping mechanism that gives people the license to abandon old norms and embrace new ones.
But the question remains. Why goblin? Why is society willing to characterize itself in such a negative, self-indulgent fashion?
Originally found in the folklore writings of the Middle Ages, goblins are described as small, grotesque creatures ascribed conflicting abilities, temperaments, and appearances ranging from mischievous household spirits to malicious, bestial thieves. In her famous Dictionary of British Folk-Tales (1970), English folklorist, Katharine Mary Briggs (1898-1980), refers to a goblin as “the general name for evil and malicious spirits, usually small and grotesque in appearance.” Like all members of the very broad category of “fey” or the beings of the preternatural world, goblins are renowned for being tricksy. “In other words,” warns Briggs, “they are best avoided.”
Unlike Briggs, Caleb Madison, an editor at The Atlantic Magazine, believes that “the ability to go ‘goblin mode’ was a necessary evolution, forged in trauma . . . our goblin-selves lurk somewhere deep inside us,” she suggests. “I don’t see going goblin mode as ‘self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy’ at all,” she says. “It’s refreshingly authentic and deeply cathartic. In goblin mode,” contends Madison, “we can become our true wild selves, unkempt and offstage, triumphantly invisible to the public eye. Whatever you call it, I’m grateful for my newfound ability to go goblin mode. Now, I can act unhinged.”
Like Madison, Sam George, Associate Professor of Research at the University of Hertfordshire, and an expert in gothic folklore, unfortunately defines goblins as harmless “pranksters . . . purposeful little monsters . . . with a “devil may care” attitude.” Fashion and beauty journalist, Cat Marnell, author of How to Murder Your Life (2013), agrees. “It is cool to be a goblin,” she insists, “to get in touch with the strange little creature that lives inside you.”
There is a grave danger with cavalierly acquiescing to “goblin mode” as the lifestyle promotes the license to do as one wishes without concern for its effects on themselves, others, and on society. “Goblin mode” is indeed complex, frightening, and traitorous. It may be the alarming progression of an attitude of extreme nihilism formed after years of racial, economic, political, and pandemic disappointment.
Perhaps, this is the reason why society is willing to be so characterized. Nonetheless, this Word of the Year should be greeted with great caution as it embodies what the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Carl Jung (1875-1961), referred to as the “shadow self,” a part of every human psyche that, he suggests, people strive to keep hidden and repressed. It is an anti-social, lazy, unfriendly, indulgent, and hostile life-perspective that can only create harmful consequences to one’s self-image.
“Goblin mode is, therefore, the opposite of trying to better yourself,” contends an anonymous Twitter user. “Everyone’s just kind of wild and insane right now.” “The power of goblin mode is that it takes over your body,” texts another nameless individual. “It is a scrambling of the brain. It’s when you act crazy, and you enter a very mythological space – you want to jump on the back of a salamander and make trouble.” Apart from Twitter postings, the “goblin mode” hashtag has also risen in popularity on the social media TikTok app. “At home, there’s no social pressure to follow norms,” states one influencer. “In #goblinmode you sort of lose the habit. There’s also a feeling that we’re all f*ked up, so why bother?”
Like Twitter and TikTok, YouTube videos, expressing similar ghoulish ideologies, have also been rising in popularity. “My body is a garbage can with an expiration date, and I got no time for healthy sh*t,” says one with 90,000 views. “I love barely holding on to my sanity and making awful selfish choices and participating in unhealthy habits and coping mechanisms,” says another with 325,000 views. In a viral YouTube video showing a wood apartment floor stacked high with a tottering pile of empty pizza boxes, a disheveled young woman proudly exclaims, “I will never wake up at 5AM and drink green juices and be hyper-organized. I will instead be in 4AM Reddit holes, Diet Coke first thing in the morning, and fistfuls of raw pasta as a snack.”
Finally, in her book, Goblin Mode: How to Get Cozy, Embrace Imperfection, and Thrive in the Muck(2023), author McKayla Coyle celebrates and promotes the “goblin mode” lifestyle as healthy. “Imperfections and idiosyncrasies are the most awesome things about you,” she writes. “You can build a more balanced, comfortable, harmonious life by accepting and honoring them – taking inspiration from the frogs, fungus, moss, rocks, and dirt that goblins love.”
“Goblin mode” is the opposite of the healthy, organized, and productive habits that are commonly presented by most faith-based traditions. In fact, “goblin mode” is actually used to characterize people and animals who suddenly become “wild.” Unlike the disheveled underpinnings of a goblinesque way of life that celebrates self-indulgent imperfections, the message of Holy Scripture inspires readers to seek the development of a disciplined, selfless, and generous existence.
In the Old Testament Book of Job, for example, that chronicles both the ecstasies and frustrations of his life, Job humbly confesses that it was not until he humbly “cast off his old self,” that he was enabled to overcome his disappointments (Job 1:20-21). “I put on righteousness,” he said, “and it clothed me. Justice was like a robe and a turban” (Job 29:14). This is an example of the Scripture’s message concerning the interchange of sin and righteousness between God and humanity. The Book of Job concludes with a wonderful invitation by God. “Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,” the Almighty tells Job, “and clothe yourself in honor and majesty” (Job 40:10).
Civilization typically ascribes identity with clothing. Holy Scripture, on the other hand, uses clothing to distinguish relationships, attitudes, and actions. This is the primary invitation of Saint Paul whereby he poetically challenges his readers to “put off their old sinful nature,” and to alternatively “clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). Humanity’s identity – attitudes and actions – is thus linked to its relationship to its Redeemer. “The world will know that you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “by the way you love one another” (John 13:35).
What then can be said about a society that rejects the vesture of holiness and prefers the bathrobe and slippers of a “goblin mode” lifestyle?
“Sympathy For the Devil” is an analysis of the dark side of humanity that often allows itself to be too easily swallowed up by the banality of evil and, thereby, helping it to accomplish the wickedness it craves. The song is narrated from the point of view of Lucifer, Mick Jagger’s protagonist who outlines the misfortunes of human history and asks for “understanding.” Outrageously, Lucifer goes so far as to imply that, collectively and individually, humanity is actually in league with him! As a result, the song veers further into “goblin mode” with its twisted insistence that the listener politely grant the devil some courtesy.
Like the Rolling Stones, the American rock band Shinedown does not dismiss the existence of the devil. On the contrary, the members of Shinedown suggest that their religious beliefs and the idea of the family have played a central role in their lyrics and music. Nonetheless, while the Stones invite listeners to sympathize and acquiesce to satan’s promptings, Shinedown promotes a more prudent spiritual response.
When asked about the lyrics in the group’s 2019 Platinum selling single entitled, “Monsters,” Brent Smith, the lead singer of Shinedown, unequivocally stated “monsters are real.” Speaking from his personal addiction to drugs and alcohol, Smith said “people . . . sabotage themselves. They don’t know why they do it, but they do it. These are the monsters that I’m talking about: those voices that say, ‘I know that I’m going to be really f****d up after it’s over with, but let’s do it anyway.’ That’s the sentiment of the song.” Describing what most people call their “demons,” their inner struggles, Smith asserts, “monsters are real . . . and they’re trained to kill.”
“Sympathy for the Devil” remains a spiritually hypnotic ballad for a generation that is unfortunately leaning toward goblinesque comportment. It is ironic that the single was released on the same month and day (December 6, 1968) that Oxford Dictionary announced its 2022 Word of the Year. Yes, the inescapable truth is that humanity is indeed fallen and, therefore, capable of great evil. However, by unwittingly accepting the “goblin mode” lifestyle, humanity would only be accentuating the errancy of its distorted image. While Oxford’s expression du jour holds a commentative mirror to society that reflects its unapologetic disposition toward self-indulgence, Holy Scripture offers a more noble alternative – an icon that invites a more honorable mode of transfiguration.