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The Depressing Rise of ‘Wordcels’ and ‘Numbercels’

Incel jargon is seeping into the mainstream, and that’s not good for anybody

By now you have a passing, if unwelcome, familiarity with the “incel” — an involuntarily celibate person who resents that while others are having sex, they aren’t. And you might know about the “volcel,” someone who claims to be voluntarily celibate, also known as “going monk mode.” 

From there, the jargon becomes extremely niche. An incel who copes by working out excessively is a “gymcel.” There are various racist terms for incels of different ethnicities, from “currycel” to “sandcel.” And now we have some derivative words that turn out to bear no relationship to sex or celibacy at all — including “theorycels,” “numbercels” and “wordcels.”

It’s revealing that the insular language of a toxic, male-dominated subculture would seep into a much larger debate over education, economics and employment in the 21st century: It reminds us, at a baseline, that a worldview focused on grievance and frustration has mass appeal beyond any single group. 

You can understand a “wordcel” to be an individual with significant training and expertise in the humanities, particularly reading and writing — a “theorycel” being the most heightened version, the cloistered pedant studying literally everything that pertains to their area of interest, yet unable to convert those ideas into practical realities. A “numbercel” or “mathcel,” meanwhile, is a product of STEM disciplines, perhaps well-compensated for their work in difficult science or tech, but lacking verbal talent and the prestige of an artist or popular intellectual. The more common synonym for “numbercel” is “shape rotator,” a reference to the ability to visualize and mentally manipulate theoretical objects, which is a meme in its own right.

On the one hand, we can view these distinctions as a harmless joke about the vast range of cognitive strengths and weaknesses represented across humankind. But that pesky “-cel” suffix tells us they’re coming from a place of disillusionment. Zoomers and millennials went to expensive colleges that sorted them into highly specialized fields, then graduated to find that the prestige of their degree wouldn’t necessarily convert to financial success or a respected career. “Wordcel” conveys the plight of a liberal arts English major in today’s job market — underemployed because of scarce opportunity or repeatedly laid off by publishing entities, and, if they’re on social media, harassed by trolls who tell them they should “learn to code,” i.e., develop a skill that provides some value to the money-making machine that is Silicon Valley.

Shape rotators, or numbercels, already know how to code, but are they any happier for it? More likely they feel like unappreciated drones laboring to bring to life the visions of fickle clients and a detached executive class. Perhaps they have an easier time finding or holding on to work, and bigger paychecks from it, yet they’re gripped by ennui and the sense that any accomplishment in this realm is ultimately hollow — moving data around on a screen. In this way, they aren’t much different from the wordcels (like me!) who support themselves by arranging one sentence after another, day after day, both of us obliged to play the game of productivity under capitalism.

The risk of this taxonomy is twofold. For one thing, it’s inauspicious that we should identify by what we cannot do, or what has been denied to us. Incels who follow their reasoning to its extreme endpoint are finally “blackpilled,” too nihilistic to make any effort at improving their circumstances. It’s simply not healthy to consider oneself a lost cause. The other danger, of course, is that wordcels and numbercels begin to war with one another instead of addressing the root causes of their mutual disaffection: a competitive society that allows only the narrowest forms of expression and provides no relief to the lost or struggling. 

But we need not allow the virus of inceldom to poison the rest of the public conversation. We can still steer ourselves in this world, and we aren’t beholden to neologisms. You can say it’s the wordcel in me talking, but I don’t believe mutations of language are inevitable. Let’s all strive to say what we really mean.