Words mean things – a mini-manifesto

This may sound incredibly basic, but it’s important to keep in mind – especially when you’re asking someone (or have been asked) to stop using a word, and to recognize its meaning and effect.

Words mean things.

“It doesn’t mean that to ME”, “but I didn’t mean it like that!”, or “that wasn’t my intention” aren’t great responses to a reminder that words mean things. Why is that, you may ask?

1-Words have meanings, but these meanings aren’t stable.

The meaning of a word changes according to social and cultural context. Since the 13th century, this one word meant (very literally) a bundle of sticks; Today, it’s used as an insult towards gay men. Meanings change with time and context, and sometimes we don’t always keep up.

We may use a word that seems neutral or harmless according to what we knew about it, but its meaning can change right under our feet. When it’s brought to our attention, then WHOA – we learn something. But once we know more about the word, we can’t go back to using a literal or limited meaning and claim ignorance to its impact.

2-If you want to mean what you say, say what you mean.

If you’re still using a word despite its broader meaning, you’re messing with your message. If you’re asked to stop using a word because its meaning is harmful, perhaps this is actually a grammatical opportunity. No, you may not have that common, comfortable word to fall back on to describe that thing you’re describing, but now you get to collect some new words.

If new words elude you, maybe try saying exactly what you mean, even with a few more words at first. You may come up with a better understanding of what it is you’re really trying to say.

For example, in using a slang synonym for weak, what are you really saying? Maybe you’re saying that according to your standards of coping, another person is not coping well. Are you talking about their actions, or your own values and judgements? Is there another word you could use in service of your point? Think about what you mean, and eventually you’ll become more concise, discerning, and clear.

3-With best intentions, words can still hurt. Using hurtful words casually normalizes hurting with words.

I know someone who uses “queer” as a synonym for “strange”. We’ve talked about how this can also be a derogatory term (or a reclaimed term, depending on the tone of voice and on who is uttering the word) – but it no longer ONLY means strange. If she says, “Oh, that’s queer!” with a particular inflection (even if she just means “strange”), her speech echoes homophobic culture. Whatever her intention, she is normalizing the use of discriminatory words outside of their new context.

Intention doesn’t negate effect, and speaking words that have been identified as harmful – anywhere on the spectrum of harmful – feeds into cultural beliefs that these things don’t matter. If we only count BIG HURT words as hurtful, then we’re condoning little hurts (aka microaggressions). These can easily turn into big hurts – the kind made up of a thousand tiny daily scratches.

Words means things.

Reflecting on and talking about words that may not seem overtly discriminatory (to us) is a great start. If we can’t talk about words that may be hurtful in a (relatively) minor way, we don’t stand a chance with the big ones. And we all deserve better – not only better communication, but more kindness from and towards each other.

 

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11 comments

  1. You used your words so well here. As someone who has been on the receiving end of hurtful words, I can attest that words, even when uttered in a cavalier way, can be damaging. Well written.

  2. There’s a word that meant something was ‘dumb’ from my childhood and I noticed myself saying it not too long ago, and I thought, ‘where did that come from?’ Because it’s totally unacceptable now. I am not sure how it came out, but I am sure I won’t be letting it out again! Because what you said is so true, words definitely mean things and I would be so upset to know that I hurt someone from a careless use of a word.

    1. It’s funny how our perspectives can change – and refreshing! I think “careless” is an excellent way to describe the way words slip into our vocabulary, whether we will it or not. If we don’t notice, whhhoooop there they are again. But if we take care, if we reflect and actively care about our words, then we can avoid being careless. Thanks for your comment!

  3. I completely agree with you here. I think it’s also important to recognize that words mean different things to different people. For instance, the term “lover” is a common label for gay men of a certain age to call their partners. For me, however, it definitely holds a negative connotation. I know that term isn’t as inflammatory as the vocab you’re discussing here. But I have to shift my thinking sometimes, or ask the person straight out what they mean. Which gets me back to the point of your well-written essay.

    1. Very true! That’s the beauty and tragedy of words, I suppose – it’s all in our personal translation. Which makes more of a case for clarification, like you suggested.

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