Words are truly powerful. They’re the components, elements, and the building blocks of our respective languages as human beings. Our words describe and define things that we create, experience, and use to survive and thrive in this world of ours. They conceptualize phenomena in ways that give meaning. Words bring things that are, otherwise, merely conceptual or abstract into more concrete form. But words do so much more than simply define or describe. For they also carry our feelings and emotions about things or people. Words, such as ‘love’ and ‘hate’ are emotive. As such, they create powerful platforms for human actions and responses. In turn, words can align us or divide us. Words can create change or further embed the status quo. Words can enlighten or imprison us. Words can give life or take life away. They can connect us or separate us from each other. In truth, our words are the very things that distinguish us from other species of life on our planet. Words are therefore powerful. They matter to us and to our survival as physical and spiritual beings.
At some level, we all recognize the importance of words, I suppose. Most of us are fortunate enough to learn to read and to write as part of our education. Many learn multiple languages as part of our formal schooling. Further, we live in an era when the sheer volume of information is exploding at an unprecedented rate. Our dictionaries even designate new Words of the Year, reflecting the addition of oft-used words to our lexicon of communications. The Oxford Dictionary awarded this honor for 2017 to the word ‘Youthquake’, reflecting the increasing impact of young people on our societies and the world of late. Elsewhere, the ‘MeToo’ hashtag became widely known and used last year as a response to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault against women across the globe. The hashtag (and the words) convey a profound and powerful message of solidarity and unity by women in the face of widespread historical and current marginalization of females.
Even as new words and phrases came to light and life last year, efforts to constrict our word usage lurked darkly in the background. We learned, late in 2017, that Center for Disease Control (CDC) officials were purportedly told not to use certain words in budget documents going forward. Words such as ‘fetus’, ‘transgender’, ‘science-based’, ‘diversity’, and ‘vulnerable’ were discouraged– for fear of alienating the Republican controlled Congress in making funding allocation decisions. This story, which was carried widely by the media, sparked outrage and cries of ‘foul’ in many circles. The Department of Health and Human Services disputed the existence of a word ban, lambasting the story as a mischaracterization of the facts. While, at the same time, others mused in highly anxious ways about the potential for the Trump Administration to ban other words going forward. To banish such words as ‘climate change’, carbon’, ‘environment’, and ‘facts’– then respond to the backlash by calling it all ‘fake news’. ‘Word’.
This ongoing debate over new, acceptable, discouraged, or even banned words underscores the power and the importance of the words that we use as we communicate outwardly. But we miss the point entirely when we fail to look at the deeper problem. When we fail to examine the underlying ways in which we manipulate words to create and hold power over others. Examples abound. We zealously strive to protect and glorify words in our vocabulary. We attach symbols and pictures and emotions to these words. Words like ‘America’ and the ‘Flag’. The ‘sacred’ words of the National Anthem of the United States. We figuratively and literally stand for these words. At football games and elsewhere. Others, most notably in the National Football League, have chosen to kneel. As a sign of protest against racial injustice against African-Americans by police and other officials. Players who kneel have been both applauded and vilified. All while we conveniently forget that the Flag, itself, is supposed to symbolize human freedom and dignity. Our innate ability to express ourselves safely and freely. And all while we also forget (or refuse to acknowledge) that the third stanza of the Star Spangled Banner contains overtly racist words. This verse decries U.S. slaves who were then fighting with the British against their own ‘country’. The words go like this: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave…” Never mind that, at this time, African-Americans were fleeing the unspeakable cruelty and dehumanization of slavery, imposed by their barbaric ‘masters’ in a geographic place that was not their home. So we don’t sing this verse, and conveniently forget or ignore. ‘Word’.
We strive not only to protect and emotionalize words. We also try to re-package or re-brand them, as well, to make them sound better. To be less offensive on the surface, while continuing to carry hurtful and hierarchical overtones and import. For example, the terms ‘Colored’ and ‘Negro’ have been viewed as more acceptable than the horrendous ‘N Word’ during much of U.S. history. While these alternative words are still used to a degree today (e.g. retained in the titles of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Negro College Fund), it’s nearly impossible to disassociate these terms from our past hateful, segregationist practices of separate water fountains, bathrooms, and places on the bus in the U.S. However you cut it, the words ‘Colored’ and ‘Negro’ were politically correct code, for many whites, for their disdain for African-Americans: people who they viewed as something less than human. Code for cruelly marginalizing persons of color to a secondary status in our country. ‘Word’.
We repackage words not just along racial lines. We do it all the time in any number of ways. We call prisoners in jail ‘inmates’. Sounds more humane, doesn’t it? We call anti-abortion advocates the ‘right to life’ movement. Never mind that many of these folks conveniently forget the broader meaning of ‘life’ when they simultaneously support the death penalty, the proliferation of guns in our country, and their own continued economic privilege over those of lesser status (what kind of life is that, anyway?) And that’s not all. We’re increasingly losing our collective ability to articulate words in meaningful ways. We’re dumbing-down our world with Tweets and Instagram pictures. Most of us don’t write letters to others anymore. Our active vocabulary of words is shrinking. In turn, our ability to effectively and purposefully communicate with each other is diminishing by the day. Even as we diminish ourselves by allowing this to happen. It’s not helped when our U.S. federal government tries to ‘discourage’ the use of certain words, for that matter, as was purportedly the case with the CDC in 2017. Because silencing our use of words is the first step in silencing our democracy and our intellect. ‘Word’.
Given all of this, what can we do? For one, we can practice more ‘mindfulness’ in using words. Step back for a minute before we hit the ‘Send’ button on our emails, tweets, and other forms of communications. And think about our own emotions as we actually wrote the words that we used. Then think even more about how the recipients might understand our words in contextual and emotional ways. Read our own words in the minds and hearts of those who’ll receive and digest them. Second, we can take the time to actively and purposefully learn new words. Yes, add words to our vocabulary. It sounds silly, of course, and others will probably react to them negatively or skeptically at first. We might even be mocked for trying to sound ‘smart’ at the expense of others. But we’ll have the opportunity to explain the word to them as they query what this strange new word actually means. Third, we can consider journaling. Write some poetry. Read books instead of social media posts for a change. My goodness, even write a long letter to someone. Buy a dictionary and a Thesaurus. Think about other, fresh, and new words that might convey what we’re trying to say.
Fourth, we can be more cognizant of the many nuances that words can carry. Many of our oft-used words are thrown around far too casually these days. For example, the term ‘feminism’ is typically used to describe the women’s movement for greater rights, freedoms, dignity, equality, and power. In homes, in society, in our jobs, and in our places of worship, to name a few. But we risk using this word in too general, negligent, and potentially disrespectful ways when when we forget this: feminism looks different for white women than it does for African-American females. Different for wealthy women as compared to the poor. Different in the U.S. than elsewhere in the world. In others words, one word doesn’t define the idea of ‘feminism’ accurately in all contexts and all places. We must, therefore, be more careful about over-generalizing terms, however widespread and popular they may appear to be on the surface.
Perhaps most importantly, though, we can be more thoughtful in appreciating this: that words have multiple, sometimes subtly conflicting or non-parallel, meanings. The presence of something is not the same as the absence of something else. It’s that simple, yet that complicated. So take time to consider how you’re using the word that’s just about to come out of your mouth. And, as we embark on a New Year, let’s resolve to pick the right words as our ‘words of the year’– in advance, for a change. I choose the word, ‘Peace’. Peace is defined in multiple ways in our dictionaries. It can mean a freedom from disturbance, violence, or war. In other words, a non-warring condition of individuals, groups, nations, and the world. Alternatively, though, it can mean a state of quiet, tranquility, harmony, and mutual accord. These definitions are not the same. Not equivalents if we really think about it. One signifies an absence of strife. The other represents an ongoing state of love, goodwill, grace, communion, and spiritual wholeness. I choose the second definition. I choose the presence of something spiritual and loving, not the absence of something else. I choose it every time. Not just in 2018. But for all time… ‘Word’.