Every once in a while, due mostly to the trickling sands of time, it is necessary to revisit a commonly used word in our language, just to see if it’s still pulling its weight, if it still belongs, if it still means what it means. Not just any word, mind you, but a word that we notice popping up more than it should, and in places where it perhaps it shouldn’t be. Case in point: the word authentic. Suddenly, it is everywhere. Authentic cowboy boots. Authentic Thai food. Authentic folk music. “My new boyfriend is so authentic.” It is enough to sound the alarm.
For those who care about language, it is always a bit sad when we see a once meaningful word getting lost in the whirlwind of media and marketing overuse. We feel sorry for the word, as it slowly and hopelessly loses its value and meaning, morphing into a disfigured version of itself. While authentic may not be in the class of words that have become completely devoid of meaning due to saturation and overuse (organic, awesome, literally), it is a word teetering on the edge of deformation, like its closest relative — real — which has already died a slow, painful death, best eulogized by phrases like for real, keeping it real, and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
But when we take off our snobby hats and think about it some more, maybe it’s not so bad after all. Maybe authentic deserves its fate. Maybe of all the words in the English language, “authentic” — by its very definition — ought to be laid out to pasture as meaningless abstraction and rhetoric, like love and hate. We live in a world where reality is increasingly subjective. So perhaps that is the “real” essence of authenticity: it’s an ideal, something that can only be sought but never attained, like nirvana or the perfect cup of coffee.
We wear a thousand different masks for a thousand different situations. Some masks are subtle, some blatant. But they are masks just the same. We hide ourselves.
For when are we — as sentient, complicated human beings — ever truly authentic? That is, are we ever truly, purely ourselves? Certainly not with our friends, lovers, spouses, children, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers, baristas, or any other human for that matter. I don’t even think we are purely authentic with our pets. For certain, we like to think that we are authentic more often than not, that we are truly ourselves with the ones we love, be they human or feline.
But we know that’s a lie. We are not the same person with our friends as we are with our parents. We are not the same person at work as we are at a class reunion. We are not the same person ordering our coffee as we are ordering our children to clean their rooms. We wear a thousand different masks for a thousand different situations. Some masks are subtle, some blatant. But they are masks just the same. We hide ourselves.
So is it only when we are alone? Are we only purely authentic singing in the shower, or kayaking a desolate coastline, or masturbating, or sleeping? It’s a question almost impossible to answer, but equally difficult to ignore.
Authenticity is a sham, a ghost of a word. It’s another linguistic victim of the 21st century’s annoying habit of transforming the meaningful into the meaningless.
We have inhabited this planet for thousands of years. We have evolved, invented, adapted, improved. We currently live in a world of superficial pleasures and quick fixes. So can anything be truly authentic anymore? Does authenticity even matter?
So, hey, let’s eat authentic Mexican food, even though it’s being made in a sweaty Vancouver kitchen with ingredients from Costco. Let’s brag about our authentic girlfriend, even though she is not who we think. Let’s wear our authentic cowboy boots, which have never been within a thousand miles of a cowboy’s foot. Let’s be authentic, even though we never are.
Perhaps it is time to start subjectively defining words like authentic to meet our own needs and actions. Heck, let’s just do that with any word we feel like. Let’s take a word like…unique (adj. Being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else), and start applying it to our new cell phone case because, you know, it’s pretty cool. Wait, that’s already happening? Damn.
Ok, then let’s call that new cell phone case authentically unique.
Yes. That is literally so much better.