A little while ago my online friend and teacher hosted an interesting conversation on Facebook about her use of the word “guys” (I wish I could find the link but I just cannot). She spoke about her intent in using that term and any misinterpretation it might receive. The conversation turned to the way we refer to people collectively — what makes us cringe and what makes us feel accepted. I don’t mind at all being classed as a “lovely” or “lady” but some took real umbrage to those terms. Others were happy to be referred to a “biatches” (and various similar things), which I personally loath.
It made me think about words, the ones we avoid, the ones we are afraid to use and the ones that inadvertently cause hurt.
There are some words that are seized back by those they were originally used to denigrate. For women who find power in the c word – I think that’s about reclaiming language. Within the women’s marches after Trump’s inauguration many adopted the term “nasty woman” as a way to take control and turn around an intended insult. But there is always a caveat around those snatched back terms. They can only be used by those referring to themselves. That’s the unwritten and well understood rule.
But what about terms that don’t (or shouldn’t) carry derogatory inference but still somehow feel wrong to use?
Last year my son joined in a soccer match played by kids one year older than him. Among the other ring-ins was a boy we hadn’t met before. He was in my son’s age bracket and dazzling in his abilities. His ball control and timing were impeccable. He was also the only black kid on the field. But when noticing his abilities, none of us used the word. We said “the guy in the red shirt” or “bright shoes” and studiously avoided any reference to skin colour. I’m not sure who is carrying the baggage there, but it probably wasn’t the kid joyfully kicking the ball. When my son meets someone new he might describe them as “dark hair and brown skin”. It makes me uncomfortable and he wonders why. So do I.
I think it’s because I’ve grown up with the idea of being “colour-blind” (for want of a better term). To not mention race. Ever. To pretend it doesn’t even exist. But this isn’t helpful. Denying a part of someone’s identity isn’t the high road. Assuming it to be is pretty arrogant. This is an interesting read on just that.
Then there are the situations where any word is a spark to a tinder box. When I lost my middle son to SIDS, I felt real “otherness” for the first time in my life. Language became more important to me than it every has before. I remember talking to a group of other mothers in similar situations and discussing the language around loss. One woman hated the term “lost her child”. “I know exactly where he is,” she spat with understandable venom. Others found “dead baby” too confronting. The lack of a word to describe us – the people that no longer hold their children – was also difficult. We call children without parents orphans. We call those who have lost their life partner a widow or widower. But parents with empty arms have no defining term in the English language. Some things are just too hard to label.
Then there are the words that seem beautiful but might be unintentionally causing harm.
Like the praise we lavish on young girls. I call my boys beautiful and gorgeous all the time. I never worry about it. But I know mums with girls who catch themselves. They use a range of terms like “clever, imaginative, strong, resilient” to build up their daughters. To make sure those wonderful young girls don’t think beauty is the end and only goal. I should probably use those terms with my boys as well but I’m nowhere near as conflicted as my friends with daughters about calling my children “beautiful”.
I call my own friends “beautiful” and “gorgeous” all the time. Not that I think they are limited to those characteristics. The terms are meant imply more than looks — that they are kind and awesome and I appreciate them. But I wonder if using those words is the best way to covey that. Maybe I should call them “smart, inventive, caring, brave, insightful”. A whole range of things. But for some reason it doesn’t roll of the tongue quite as easily and feels uncomfortable. If I want to be part of change, I guess I have to get over that.
Words. They hold such power and can inflict hurt without intention. I think we need to handle them carefully. To realise their sharp edges, to think about what we are really saying and to accept it when we are challenged about the ways we use them.
Do you struggle with these aspects of language?