Michael had never even heard of incels until he accidentally stumbled onto a YouTube video criticizing men whose identities centered on their being involuntarily celibate. The high school student—who declined to share his real name in an article that might portray him as an angry virgin—had long struggled to date women, and the clip had the opposite of its intended effect: he actually found himself agreeing with arguments that were supposed to make him cringe. Suddenly, Michael realized, he had a proper term for what he now calls his "condition," and when he plugged "incel" into Google, he ended up on subreddits that provided an entire vocabulary around which to order his existence.
But as he went further down the rabbit hole, the learning curve grew steeper—Michael said the only way it started to click was through exposure.
"At first, 'low inhib,' [but] I later made the inference that it meant somebody who was shameless, and pretty much acted out with little to no regret," he told me. "'Beta-bux' was extremely confusing, but then I figured out that it just meant some unattractive man [who] literally used his abundance of money to keep a mildly attractive woman by their side, and if the money wasn't even a variable, the relationship wouldn't exist."
The incel world is not unique within the wide array of misogynist and other fringe American subcultures for providing adherents a shared dialect with which to spread toxic ideas. But if you're not already steeped in the primordial muck of the broader manosphere, it can be exceedingly difficult to parse what these people are talking about, and why. As J.M. Berger, an analyst of the intersection between radical ideology and social media and author of the forthcoming book Extremism explained, the incel community is still relatively new, small and understudied. "Another complicating factor is that a lot of different ideological strains are currently consolidated under the alt-right heading," he told me. "Drilling down into the component parts of the alt-right is a challenge, and it's sometimes easier for people to just treat it as a more cohesive group than it actually is."
But given incels' demonstrated capacity for murder, and the broader reality that much of the violence in American life is perpetrated by men against women, it can be helpful to have a general idea of how these people think—and how they talk. What follows is a brief guide to 32 of the most common phrases used across the murky forums and subreddits populated by incels, along with an attempt to grapple with the ubiquity of each term in what amounts to a noxious alternate reality.
All or Nothing: The idea here is that you’re either an incel or someone who can have sex with almost anyone you want. The incel universe is extremely black-and-white—if you're undesirable to be around, it's the result of something innate or that happened to you, not personal failure.
Ascending: The process of going from being an incel to a "normie," or a "Chad" (see below). This is a group obsessed with the idea of a sexual caste system, and how one might "make it" to the other side.
Aspie: This term refers to someone with Asperger's Syndrome. Incels' fixation on the condition seems to be derived from the fact that they sometimes attribute sexual or romantic troubles to being on the spectrum. Basically, it appears to be a reassuring thought to some incels that their sexual frustrations might be the result of a disorder rather than some sort of social inadequacy.
Blackpill: The embrace of any belief even more bleak than the incel redpill, a.k.a. the initial revelation of your alleged place in that world (see below). The idea is that no amount of self-improvement will be sufficient to help certain people obtain romantic or sexual partners. Those who have taken the blackpill have concluded they have no capacity for ascension (see above).
Bonesmashing: The dangerous practice of attempting to damage your face to change your bone structure. This appears to be based in part on Wolff’s Law, which suggested that bones might grow in response to repeated blunt trauma. Some incels are obsessed with radically altering their bone density and jaws to conform to what they consider the male ideal, and this is presented as one way to do that without expensive surgery.
Boyo: Most terms of affection used among incels riff off the word "boy." As recently pointed out by Vox, incels tend to be men, although not exclusively so.
Brad: A guy in-between a Chad (see below) and a normie. A Chad-lite, if you will. Basically, he's a guy who has had a sexual/romantic relationship or two but still perceived himself as coming out on the losing end of those interactions.
Chad: The archetype here is a white guy over six feet tall, the type of person incels believe excels at dating the women he desires. The platonic ideal of a Chad is a former college football player known as the Greensboro Jock who allegedly grew up to become a multi-millionaire entrepreneur. His apparent success furthers incels' disordered belief that looks are the sole necessary ingredient for a happy life.
Currycel/Ricecel: People who believe they are celibate because of their Asian heritage. These incels are often obsessed with "whitemaxing," or trying to appear more white via use of creams or surgeries. Incels are particularly fixated on a perceived racial hierarchy of sexual dynamics, and Isla Vista killer Elliot Rodger was notoriously angry about the fact that he was half-Asian, which he perceived as an impediment to losing his virginity.
Escort Theory: An often-derided suggestion that incels should just see escorts to relieve their sexual frustration. It's usually only referred to in the abstract on forums as something a hypothetical normie might suggest, but made a mainstream debut of sorts when New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote about a potential need for the "redistribution of sex."
Femoid: One of incels' many dehumanizing terms for women. It's actually fairly uncommon to find the word "woman" on their message boards; the most value-neutral word used to describe the object of incels' collective desire is probably the clinical "female."
Going ER: This is how incels refer to one of their own snapping and killing people, the letters "ER" being the initials of the aforementioned Isla Vista mass murderer. The term is sometimes also stylized as "pulling an ER." While it may not be the case that all or even a majority of incels believe this to be a worthy or appropriate goal, the group is riddled with people who openly fantasize about violence. Communities on the far-right have also generally capitalized on the perceived lack of opportunities in modern society for men to "prove" their masculinity, falsely promising that violence is one such way.
Gymcel: An incel who is trying to ascend (see above) by going to the gym as much as possible. Can also be used as a verb, i.e. "to gymcel." Connected to the broader belief that palpable (traditional) masculinity is the foremost characteristic that attracts women.
“How over is it?”: A common phrase in online forum threads used by incels to ask other incels for advice based on their physical circumstances. If it's "over," the incel is deemed incapable of ever "ascending" to become a normie, and may even be encouraged to "rope," or commit suicide.
Incel Tears: Abbreviated as IT, this is the cringe subreddit for incels, where screenshots of incels saying ridiculous things are posted for others to mock.
LDAR: This amounts to a directive to “lay down and rot,” or just give up. It could be a recommendation to become a "NEET" (see below) who leeches off his family or the government, or even to commit suicide via "the rope."
Lookism: The idea here is that people are discriminated against in all aspects of life based on their appearance. Those who subscribe to this philosophy would likely see themselves as well apart from "braincels" or "mentalcels," who tend to think they are lonely due to being highly intelligent or mentally ill, respectively.
Looksmax: The practice of trying to enhance one’s appearance via methods ranging from buying nicer clothes to gym training to radical facial reconstruction through surgery. Some of the men who engage in looksmax thinking might be traditionally handsome; either way, they tend to believe the secret to their happiness resides in maxing out stats in a number of key aesthetic areas.
Manlet: A derogatory term for a short man. Many incels seem to be radicalized by what they consider the double standard of women (allegedly) refusing to date short men while men are discouraged from expressing overt aesthetic preferences for their own potential partners.
Mewing: A technique attributed to a British orthodontist named Mike Mew that involves putting pressure on the roof of your mouth with your tongue to try and change the shape of your face. This fits into the broader looksmax approach to self-modification in the name of love and romance.
MGTOW: "Men going their own way," this approach to life is presented as an alternative to being celibate against one's will. It's somewhat analogous to the sovereign citizen movement, which is to say these men reject the idea of even seeking a romantic partner the way that a sovereign citizen might reject the federal government.
Mogged: "AMOG" originally referred to the "alpha male of a group" in pick-up-artist culture, but the term seems to have evolved into a verb meaning to be emasculated by another man who is bigger, more muscular, or otherwise “better” than oneself. Incels subdivide all men into alphas and betas, in yet another example of their black-and-white thinking.
NEET: A person who is "not in education, employment, or training." Originally a government designation in the UK meant to sound more palatable than "status zero," it's now been co-opted by incels to describe where they fit into society writ large.
Proper swallow: What some people in the looksmax community seem to think will cure hollow cheeks, this technique appears to involve not sucking on your teeth while eating. High, forward-projecting cheekbones can be a particular point of fixation in the incel world.
PSL: This stands for PUASluthateLookism, an umbrella term for various subsets of incel-related worldviews. To be indoctrinated into PSL means you've covered three of the big pillars by spending time on: a now-defunct board where people complained about shady pick-up artists; the misogynist board people moved to after it shuttered; and looksmaxing (see above) forums.
Roidcel: This is an incel who is part of the looksmax community and trying to bulk up and attract women by using steroids, as opposed to "training natty." It's consistent with a general willingness to embrace any means necessary to satisfy perceived ideals of attractiveness.
Redpill: The term generally refers to a right-wing call to consciousness. In the incel community, it amounts to embracing the idea that women are predisposed to only be attracted to certain types of body types, skin tones, and facial structures.
Roastie: This is a hateful term for a woman who's had sex. Some incels believe—perhaps as a result of having virtually no experience with the female anatomy—that a woman becomes disfigured by intercourse. As a result, they may believe a woman's value is depleted by every sexual interaction she's had in the past.
St. BlackOps2Cel: This refers to a picture of a young man wearing a Call of Duty shirt who's been adopted as the "patron saint" of inceldom. There's dispute about where the image was first posted, and no one seems to know who the man is or if he even identifies with the community.
Stacy: This is a woman who allegedly has her pick of sexual partners, although incels seem to simultaneously believe that all women have their pick of sexual partners. A Stacy is the unattainable female ideal that is targeted for revulsion and perhaps even violence.
Wizard: This is someone who’s a virgin at the age of 30 or older. Though many members—cribbing a line from the Isla Vista killer's manifesto—identify as "kissless" virgins, that designation isn't essential to belonging to the community. Still, many seem to identify strongly with metrics of kisses, dates, Tinder matches, and sexual interactions.
Wristcel: These people seem to believe they are celibate because of the width of their wrists. Although the entire incel community is based in large part on attributing the inability to get laid on some tiny perceived flaw, self-describing as a wrist-cel tends to garner some pushback, because even other incels perceive this as silly.
If you or someone you know is fixated on perceived flaws in appearance or might be struggling with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), help is available. Click here to learn about support groups based in the US and abroad.
If you are feeling suicidal, visit the website of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call toll free 1-800-273-TALK (8255) at any time. A listing of similar helplines in other countries can be found here.
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