Words: the difficult ones

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? 


Linking up with Kylie Purtell – Capturing Life and IBOT 

24 thoughts on “Words: the difficult ones

  1. deb dane says:

    Such a thoughtful post thank you.

    I think that mentioning race in terms of a descriptor is one I struggle with – I guess I try to think – would I use race as the descriptor for a white person in this situation or would I say something else.

    I hate the resistance to calling girls beautiful these days. Same as banning barbies and princesses I think it misses the point. To me it is about making sure our girls know that being beautiful is not important or something to worry about being/not being in relation to what SOMEONE ELSE THINKS. That can be taught while still using the word. I say things like “time to get up beautiful girl”. The girls enjoyed princess movies and barbies and never once took on board crazy body dimensions or that someone would rescue them or be stronger than them. They can take the entertainment and leave the rest. More important is saying and modelling the messages you DO want them to take on board.
    deb dane recently posted…How to reclaim your true selfMy Profile

    • Robyna says:

      I guess I would never use it personally, but my kids do because they naturally use points of difference to describe somebody. And I guess I query why their language, which is quite understandable, makes me cringe.

  2. virginia sliedrecht says:

    Sorry I banned Barbies in my time, I still believe they give the wrong impression of what a desirable body should look like. On the other hand I also believe if you can give you children a good senses of their own worth and the idea they are a world citizen and their responsibilities that come with that you give them a strong bases to go forward into life with.
    I also told my girls they are beautiful,wonderful and can do anything and look how fantastic an adult Robyna has become.

    • Robyna says:

      Aw, I love it when you comment Mum. You do know that my high school mates all found that Barbie thing a bit of laugh when I ended up tall, blonde, relatively skinny (but not quite Barbie endowed).

  3. [email protected] says:

    I really like this post, very thought provoking. I do tell my girls they are beautiful, both inside and out, & also brave, strong, creative, fiesty, smart and kind. It’s so tricky because even if we are always careful with our words others aren’t and so they get exposed anyway. I think it’s important how we then discuss the topics with them & like Deb said model the behaviours. We recently went on holiday to South Africa and had to have many discussions about different cultures and societies because of what they were hearing and observing. I hope that this young generation can shake off many of the issues that the past has created.
    [email protected] recently posted…Book Club – 6 Recommended ReadsMy Profile

  4. Vanessa says:

    I use ‘guys’ a lot but in my head it’s a genderless collective description… I know others don’t see it that way though.
    I hate being referred to as ‘the girls’ or similar as it was used in an annoying way by a boss in a job I had many years ago now.
    Vanessa recently posted…Are Routines Working For Me?My Profile

    • Robyna says:

      That is so true – like when people are choosing baby names and avoid the name of that kid that stuck gum in their hair in grade 3.

  5. Sarah @sarahdipity says:

    This is such a great post Robyna and you’ve really got me thinking. Words are powerful and we do need to be careful how we use them however sometimes it can seem like political correctness gone made…it is a struggle for sure
    Sarah @sarahdipity recently posted…ReadyMy Profile

    • Robyna says:

      I think the PC battle is an interesting one. I’m not so concerned if a battle about appropriate words is occurring between people that actually aren’t directly impacted, but when someone from a particular community stands up and says “that’s not how I want to be referred to” then I think that’s when we really need to listen.

    • Robyna says:

      They really do, and I think sometimes we get very defensive when challenged on our use rather than taking a step back and really thinking about it.

  6. Melinda says:

    Such a great post. I used to work in a staffroom where the c word was bandied about so much that it was a term of endearment. It was very confronting when I first started working there and the word has definitely not stuck in my vocabulary! I find myself agonising over word choice sometimes, but ALWAYS on social media. Words offend so easily and I think I’m hyper aware after a few FB smackdowns on other bloggers I follow, over their word choices whether they were deserved or not. In choosing my words so carefully I think I end up sounding like a three fingered robot, though a very considerate one nonetheless

    • Robyna says:

      Hahah – yes there is always that – how much do you dilute your personality by being so careful? I won’t give away calling people “lovely” unless someone specifically asks me not to.

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