We have a question about the origin of "SJW". I'm interested in how its usage has changed over time. As a rough outline:

  • It seems to have started out as a nonce-term of praise.
  • Then, it took on a pejorative connotation towards a particular kind of far-left person active mostly on Tumblr, whose opinions are characterized by

    • belief in otherkin, multiple systems (i.e., people who are more than one person), and fictionkin,
    • endorsement of novel gender identities such as "demiboy", and
    • an intense hostility towards white people, cisgender males, and heterosexuals, to the point of calling for violence against them (an associated slogan is "die cis scum").

    The subreddit /r/TumblrInAction was created to mock this kind of SJW on Tumblr.

  • Its usage then began to generalize as a term of disparagement for any person with a non-right-wing opinion on social issues, such as Hillary Clinton. Simultaneously, /r/TumblrInAction has moved politically from the left or the center to the right and now mocks things like people complaining that women are paid less than men.

Can anyone point to when each of these changes happened?

  • Mostly the changes took place during the presidential campaign.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 3:32

3 Answers 3


Regarding the broadening of the term (from bullet point 2 to 3 in your question), I would say this was a result of gamergaters picking up and hugely popularising the term and this can be shown through comparing usage of "social justice warrior" with the timeline of the GamerGate controversy.

As you will have read in the wikipedia article, what became known as the GamerGate controversy began before the hashtag was coined, when Zöe Quinn released her game, Depression quest, in February 2013. But it was at the end of August 2014, when the #GamerGate hashtag was coined, that the movement essentially "went viral".

Trending of the Google search term "social justice warrior" begins to steadily rise in March 2013, and then there is a distinct sharp jump in August 2014. It continues to increase after that but jaggedly. By comparison searches for "#gamergate" instantaneously jump from nothing in August/September 2014 and then peter out quite quickly - suggesting the broadly pejorative term "social justice warrior" had taken on a life of its own even as #GamerGate was dying down.

Links to Google Trends: social justice warrior #gamergate

  • Social Justice Warrior was in wide use long before #GamerGate.
    – forest
    Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 10:00

Antecedents: Early links between 'social justice' and 'warrior'

The connection of "social justice" and "warrior" goes back much farther than the 1990s. Consider this "pen picture" of Woodrow Wilson from "Two Presidents: Raymond Poincare and Woodrow Wilson," in the [Launceston, Tasmania] Examiner (December 27, 1918):

You cannot understand the man from this time forth; you cannot follow the battle of the next few years through the intricate alleys through which it raged, unless you are conscious that you are always beholding a scene in which the central figure is that of a prophet inspired by a passionate sense of the majesty of the law of social justice; a warrior burning with abhorrence of a secret things that divide and isolate, hot with hatred of the artificial distinction, the unearthed privilege, the unequal opportunity, a knight animated by loving tenderness for the man at the bottom—a tenderness not sentimental, but born of reason.

The author describes Wilson is a warrior burning with abhorrence for secret advantage and a prophet inspired by the law of social justice. This does not exactly say that Wilson is a "social justice warrior," but it comes fairly close.

A similar connection appears in "United We Stand, Divided We Fall," in the [Brisbane, Queensland] Worker (October 13, 1936):

From the very dawn of history it has been recognised that the most effective weapon that can be used against an enemy is a division of his forces, and down' through the pages of time we have seen that "Divide and Conquer" has been the guiding principle of the successful warrior, and this applies not merely to conflicts of the military strategist but with even more significance to the working class struggle for economic freedom and social justice.

Here the writer explicitly refers to the successful warrior in the working class struggle for economic freedom and social justice.

'Warrior for social justice'

But the actual phrase "warrior for social justice" first appears in library database searches five years earlier—and in the United States. From Fantasy, volumes 1–2 (1931) [combined snippets]:

He [Charles Erskine Scott Wood] is a pioneer and path-finder in fields and wildernesses and deserts of thought, frontiersman on many intellectual horizons. But he also helped push the physical frontier further toward the Northwest. He is a warrior for social justice and in the one war that can never end: the campaign for truth.

From The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1934) [combined snippets]:

This combination of a dozen and one success stories makes a significant comment on social interaction between the races in the United States. In the first place, at least nine of the subjects have been staunch warriors for social justice, in their fashions, and are known as much for their crusades and utterances in behalf of those causes as for their personal gifts. The only possible exceptions are the careers of [Marian] Anderson, [George Washington] Carver, and [Joe] Louis.

From The Woman's Press, volumes 41–42 (1947) [snippet view]:

With such a vertical confidence, the warrior for social justice will not measure his efforts by their “success” on the horizontal plane, that is, their social acceptance by others. That's pragmatism, not Christianity. Rather, he will judge his efforts in terms of their integrity, their degree of obedience to the command of God laid upon him.

From Boilermakers Blacksmiths Report, volumes 1–5 (1963[?]) [combined snippets]:

As an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, the following message was received from HISTADRUT (General Federation of Labor in Israel). It was addressed to George Meany, President, AFL-CIO:

"Israeli workers shocked and grieve at untimely and tragic death of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was a great and brave warrior for social justice and equality, freedom and democracy. His loss will be mourned by free men everywhere and his memory will long last. Please convey to American Labor the deepest sympathies of Israel's Labor Movement."

From an obituary for Hubert C. Herring, in Social Action, volume 34 (1967) [combined snippets]:

The Council [for Christian Social Action of the United Church of Christ] joins its many friends in saluting a valiant warrior for social justice. An intrepid pioneer in humanitarian causes who contributed significantly to the understanding of the United States' responsibilities in the Western hemisphere, he left an indelible mark upon the churches' work in social action.

From David Bone, "A Last Look at Emma," in the [Boston, Massachusetts] Heights September 26, 1977):

"Emma" is the hard, warm embrace of turn-of-the-century activism by the arms of the Next Move Theatre. Based on the life of Emma Goldman, anarchist and warrior for social justice, the play is both documentraily concerned with the circumstances of the times which influenced her, and politically responsible to her laudible ideals and determination.

From an obituary for Mary Fox Herling in the New York Times (November 1978) [snippet view]:

Mary Fox Herling of Bethesda, Md., influential in many areas of community and labor endeavor in Washington and New York, died Saturday of Parkinson's disease at Suburban Hospital in Washington. She was 84 years old.

Norman Thomas [who died in 1968] called her a "wise and gallant warrior for social justice."

From an obituary for Hubert Humphrey, in The Crisis, volume 85 (1978) [combined snippets]:

An emptiness, a void descended upon the nation with the death of Hubert Humphrey {January 13, 1978}. We have lost a dear friend, a brave and enthusiastic warrior for social justice. He represented the best in America, the promise of decency and democracy for all our citizens, the continual renewal of freedom. He believed in the goodness of our people and in the responsibility of our institutions to create the conditions in which goodness might flourish.

A couple of things are pretty clear about "warrior for social justice." First, since the early 1930s it has been used to describe people who are or were committed to the causes of racial and (especially) economic fairness and equality. To extrapolate from the examples listed here, the term seems to have been especially popular in the periodicals of activist churches, labor unions, and organizations dedicated to promoting the interests of racial minorities.

Second, it appears to have been used especially in honoring politically progressive people who had died: of the eight instances of the phrases cited above, five appear in the context of obituaries or retrospectives dedicated to deceased longtime activists.

'Social justice warrior'

Not surprisingly, the earliest instances of "social justice warrior" use the term in the same admiring sense that writers from 1931 forward used "warrior for social justice" in. From The Ethnic Reporter, volumes 17–22 (1995[?]):

This conference marks the end of over twelve years of service on the executive council. I will treasure my memories of all the places we have been around the country, and all the social justice warriors I have had the privilege to work with and my colleagues on the council. I leave the council, but not the organization, knowing that it is in very good hands and will live long and prosper.

From Tim Dugdale, I Couldn't Care Less: A Novel (1995):

Conny was a local painter who had achieved modest fame in the Canadian art scene with his experiments in New Age macho realism: the sensitive male writ large as compassionate lover, social justice warrior and loyal son to Mother Earth.

Instances of unironic, uncritical usage continued to appear in the 21st century. For example, from Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Beyond Sandy Blight: Five Aboriginal Experiences as Staff on the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program (2008):

We met the team; the people we would travel thousands of miles with, eat with, drink with, laugh with, cry with and occasionally get pissed off with. Camping out and sharing small spaces made sure we occasionally learnt too much about each other and our relationships. We grew as people, we grew as social justice warriors, we grew as health advocates. A life was lost. My heart still goes out to Trish's family. Our marriage got rocky. Every moment of those three and a half years contributed to m personally and politically. I wouldn't have missed it for quids.

But by that point there were at least oblique references to "social justice warriors" as activists who were not altogether rational and maximally effective in pursuit of their high-minded goals. From Janata, volume 62 (2007), an Indian periodical [combined snippets]:

Instead of improving the quantum and standard of primary education in Government schools (meant mostly for OBCs and SC&ST children), social justice warriors are worried about 27 per cent reservation in IIT & IIM. How long are you going to curse the Brahmins for all these ills?

And from Karen Hammel, Leadership Preparation as One Person's Transformation: An Ontology (2008):

A willingness to act was well rewarded. I was emboldened to forward my own agenda and exploit opportunities. In the beginning, getting things done was intended to benefit children with disabilities. Surely material outcomes would translate into humanitarian accomplishments. Acting as a warrior for social justice made me feel morally superior. Status quo was never good enough; nothing ever was. There was always a rather desperate need for improvement, and I was just the person to deliver it.

Looking back, efforts to improve myself were abandoned along the way. I was on a mission to change the world. Such was the nature of my informal leadership training.

'Social justice warrior' as a pejorative

This is the backdrop against which a faction in the GamerGate controversy (which arose in 2014) successfully redefined "social justice warriors" as a pejorative term describing utterly inflexible, arrogant, doctrinaire ideological zealots of a particular sociopolitical tendency—leftist, aggrieved, self-righteous, aggressively race- and class-conscious, hypersensitive to so-called political correctness. (Perhaps needless to say, the term absolutely did not apply to utterly inflexible, arrogant, doctrinaire ideological zealots of the polar opposite sociopolitical tendency—rightist, aggrieved, self-righteous, aggressively race- and class-conscious, hypersensitive to so-called political correctness.)

Interestingly, one discussion of GamerGate—Lisa Nakamura, "Putting Our Hearts into It: Gaming's Many Social Justice Warriors and the Quest for Accessible Games," in Diversifying Barbie and Mortal Kombat: Intersectional Perspectives and Inclusive Designs in Gaming (2016)—asserts that "social justice warrior" and "SJW" were (when use pejoratively) gender-specific insults:

GamerGate, the coordinated social media harassment of female developers and social justice game developers like Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, as well as feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian is part of a much longer history of sexual harassment of women in gaming. ... These GamerGate targets and their defender on social media were derisively labeled "social justice warriors," or "SJW's" because they publicly claimed the identity of "feminist" and asserted the need for more diverse games and game cultures. Men who entered the discussion to criticize misogynistic behavior in the gaming community were called "white knights" rather than SJWs, and were similarly dismissed as either "too sensitive" or "brainwashed" by the feminist movement.

Nakamura also notes that "social justice warrior" was popular on certain blogs that favored the agenda associated with it in the decade prior to the GamerGate blowup:

The "term "social justice warrior," now popularized in part by GamerGate, was previously used in the mid-2000s by Tumblr and Live Journal bloggers to refer to the struggle against forms of body-based social discrimination such as sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and classism.

The pejorative sense of the term seems to have proliferated rapidly—a tribute to power of Internet as a vector for language alteration. In effect, this particular instance is a reverse case of the phenomenon in which a pejorative term is embraced by its intended victims and transformed into a term of pride (as, for example, the term freaks was by counterculture youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and as the term queer was by nonheterosexuals in the 1990s and later). Here, enemies of a group of people have transformed a term of pride into a mocking term of opprobrium. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to find instances in publications from 2014 and later that continue to use "warrior for social justice" (and its variants) in the traditional admiring sense.

  • This is fantastic work, especially the citations for very early uses, and the connection to "white knight" is interesting. What remains mysterious to me is usage 2 and its transition to 3. Perhaps the specific pejorative use appeared a few years before Gamergate and then Gamergaters were the ones who expanded it. Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 1:49

SJW origin and first positive connotation, 1990s and 2000s:

  • Abby Ohlheiser wrote in The Washington Post that "social-justice warrior" or variations thereof had been used as a laudatory phrase in the past, and provided an example dating to 1991. She quoted Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, who said, "All of the examples I've seen until quite recently are lionizing the person." According to The Washington Post, use of the phrase in a positive manner continued from the 1990s through the 2000s.

Pejorative connotation, from 2011:

  • Katherine Martin says that the term switched from primarily positive to overwhelmingly negative around 2011, when it was first used as an insult on Twitter. The same year an Urban Dictionary entry for the term also appeared. The term's negative use became mainstream due to the Gamergate controversy, emerging as the favoured term of Gamergate proponents to describe their ideological opponents.

  • The negative connotation was particularly aimed at those espousing views adhering to social progressivism, cultural inclusiveness, or feminism.

More recent usage:

  • Some conservative outlets have described Donald Trump's actions and policies as social justice of the right.

  • Daniel Payne writing for The Federalist website listed three general attributes of a social justice warrior and noted that they are attributes of Donald Trump, who has proven to be "the platonic social justice warrior candidate.


  • This is part of the answer, and indeed I read the same Wikipedia article, but I'm particularly interested in the broadening of the term (from bullet point 2 to 3 in my question text), which isn't addressed here. Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 3:17

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