In The Matrix, Morpheus, a cool bald guy wearing sunglasses and a black crocodile trench coat, offers Keanu Reeves (and, by extension, the audience) a choice. Morpheus has just shown us that the world we thought was real is merely a simulation, and that the actual real world is mired in an interminable, violent power struggle between robots and humans. He proffers two capsules, one in each hand (they are reflected in his tiny sunglass lenses). “You take the blue pill,” he says, “the story ends—you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Since its release in 1999, The Matrix has endured as a potent representation of the technologically motivated identity crisis of the early 21st century. The film also introduced a vocabulary to describe many of its associated sensations. The Matrix became shorthand for the uncanny feeling that our media-saturated, hyper-commercialized, machine-mediated culture had alienated us from some primal human reality. A glitch in the Matrix, too, has come to mean something inexplicable and surreal happening in an otherwise normal situation. Bullet-time—the slow-motion effect used in the movie to depict bullets rippling through the air—itself became a metaphor for viewers dislodging themselves from space and time to see the world from a new dimension. Even the idea of “unplugging” from one’s devices has its literal precedent in the vivid image of Neo unhooking his connection to the Matrix from the port in the back of his neck. But no concept has carried more linguistic weight than the red and blue pills, which can either solidify your radical new awareness or send you back into ignorant narcotic bliss.
Not even a visionary prophet like Morpheus could have predicted what would happen 17 years later: In 2016, the metaphor of the red pill was adopted by the alt-right supporters of future President Donald Trump to galvanize the defiant spirit of the campaign. The red pill became synonymous with Trump supporters’ message to establishment politics. Rather than referring to a choice, like the one Morpheus offered to Neo, the phrase was recast as a verb: to redpill. This is not an option you’re given, but something done to you. The term became synonymous with the violent attitude of the alt-right movement—we’re going to make you aware of our reality, whether you like it or not.
After Trump’s election, the term continued to evolve in curious ways. The color red fell by the wayside and the verbal suffix -pill endured. Its first evolution was blackpill—a fatalistic alternative to redpill, used in alt-right and incel communities, connoting an attitude of defeat and hopelessness. But after blackpill severed the head and repurposed the suffix, the -pilled floodgates were opened for the internet language-meme machine. I first noticed it when someone referred to my constant proselytizing for the band Steely Dan as me trying to “Danpill” people. Mask skeptics won over by Anthony Fauci could be called KN-95pilled. You might hate Taylor Swift until you hear the “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)” and get Taylorpilled. Solve one Atlantic crossword and you’ll be puzzlepilled.
-pilled was ironically co-opted from the alt-right to connote a sort of forced subscription to an ideology. To be X-pilled meant to learn new information that made you an enthusiastic lover of X. The serious sense of “waking up to the truth” that alt-righters used redpilling to mean was weathered down with irony until it revealed what may be the true meaning of the term: to become a superfan of something, political or otherwise. Hence the Wednesday clue: “Suffix denoting indoctrination.”