It’s interesting to think about what words really are. They’re air passing through vocal chords. They’re pixels on a page. They’re a collection of sounds and shapes that we have collectively decided have meaning. And we bestow certain words with tremendous power.
In the comments of my post about the reaction to The Onion and the Twitterverse finding enemies, we got to talking about the power of words, who can say them, and how much intent matters when they’re said.
Why, exactly, do certain words carry so much power? I don’t mean that in terms of history, which I understand, or why people take offense to the most hateful words, which I also understand. People are right to be offended by them.
I’m talking about, at a basic level, how did we all collectively arrive at deciding that these words or any words have totemic power?
The reason we decide on certain words to channel such power, I think, is that some words are vessels for very real and complex power disparities that exist in the real world. All of the real hate, sexism, and racism in the world are bestowed upon a few words that can stand in for forces much greater than the syllables themselves, to the point that if you say them out loud you are summoning those powers and placing yourself in league with them.
It’s still kind of a strange thing though, when you stop and think about it. Imagine a perfectly non-racist or non-sexist performance artist stepping onto a New York subway and shouting certain words to no one in particular, with no intention other than to say them. Why, exactly, should that person be beat up? What if that person doesn’t even understand English or the what the words mean? (Note: I am not suggesting anyone does this).
When you say certain words in the wrong context or with ill intent, you are summoning an invisible army behind you. You are assuming the mantle of the power of hate, which usually goes unspoken. You are aligning yourself with an ideology people are trying to stamp out. Use them and they may well try to stamp you out. They may be sounds and letters, but we’ve decided they should mean much more than that.
In some sense words really are magic spells. Say the right syllables and you assume tremendous power. But that too is an illusion, because the words themselves don’t actually make you stronger.
There’s real power in the world, there is real racism and sexism and oppression. People have suffered from these abuses.
The words themselves, though, are a string of sounds and some scratches on a page. They only have the power that we have collectively decided they should possess.
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Elissa M says
This sort of discussion always makes me think of the word "Yankee", which was originally a derogatory term. Instead of being offended, the colonists adopted it, and well, mostly made it inoffensive (unless you hate a particular baseball team or haven't quite gotten over the "War of Northern Aggression").
Words do have power, but only as much power as we choose to give them. No one can insult you if you refuse to be insulted.
Matt Borgard says
I think I get what you're saying, but this gets awfully close to the idea that "I can spew whatever hateful slurs I want, and if you get offended, well, that's YOUR fault for choosing to be offended!"
We have the power to control our outward reactions to a degree, but that doesn't excuse hate speech.
I didn’t read that at all. I perceived this article to articulate that if we have strong minds then we can not allow words (of ignorance) control how we act or feel. If we allow that then those words are given the weight u have allowed them to have. If you discard them and do not allow them to take over and get the better of you- then you are emotionally stable enough to control your reaction. He didn’t say it won’t or should t bother u, but that we allow them to and this give them power. If some stranger on the street calls me a bitch – I am definitely not allowing that random stranger to ruin my day BC who are they? No one! And they clearly are stupid and need attention. Attention that they will NOT get from me. Let them manipulate someone weaker into violence or stopping to their level.
Marsha Sigman says
I think you make an interesting point. It doesn't really change anything but it's something to think about.
Also, the term 'Yankee' is still an insult in the deep south.ha But it's used almost affectionately now.
Nathan Bransford says
Yeah, I'm definitely not trying to justify hate speech and want to be very very (very) clear that's not what I'm saying. Hate comes from a terrible place. I hate hate speech.
But when you separate the words from what they express… yeah, it's interesting. I think we might feel more agency over both how we express words and how we react to them when we're mindful of what they really are and are not.
Matthew MacNish says
This is a big part of why I write I fiction. As the creator of characters who are not us, we sometimes have the freedom to explore things we might not otherwise get away with.
Not saying that's right, just saying it is.
"Those who boggle at strong language are cowards, because it is real life which is shocking them, and weaklings like that are the very people who cause most harm to culture and character. They would like to see the nation grow up into a group of over-sensitive little people – masturbators of false culture of the type of St Aloysius, of whom it is said in the book of the monk Eustachius that when he heard a man breaking wind with deafening noise he immediately burst into tears and could only be consoled by prayers."
– The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War by Jaroslav Hasek.
Rorschachs of soy on papyrus.
Pulsing pixels of light traveling to your optic nerve.
Attenuated waves of air pressure rattling a stretch of tissue deep in your ear.
If you self-mutilate your own id because you encountered "a word," then that's on you. I don't care how harsh of a word it is.
Insults are criticisms and criticisms are insults.
Many people think they are absolved from hearing criticism of their actions or their culture.
Nope. I'm just not playing along with that crap anymore.
Nobody owns franchise rights to words. Nobody. Nobody tells a Master Chef when they can and cannot use a particular spice and no self-appointed arbiter of propriety tells me which words I am/am not authorized to use.
Nathan Bransford says
I wouldn't go that far. Just because we've decided collectively that words have power doesn't mean you get to hide behind "they're just words!" if you deliberately use them in a way that hurts other people. We're all still responsible for what we say.
Butter Balls says
You’re confusing the hatred expressed and the hatred associated with a word with the word itself. Meanings of words change naturally, but if we ringfence certain words as taboo we give them a power they wouldn’t normally have and prevent them from changing or going out of use. Stopping certain groups from using certain words will automatically make them want to use them, as humans are perverse that way. It is the overreaction to certain taboo words in the pursuit of sexual or racial equality which is giving them more power to hurt, not less, and that is controllable by those hearing them. React to the hatred, not the word itself or its associations and historical usage. If it’s obvious there is no hatred intended then don’t get emotional and offended. For as long as you do you give a weapon to real bigots to hurt you.
This is very interesting to look at as an actress. Words are everything, and depending on how you say them, they can take on very different meanings.
Shawn, I have an interesting example you might want to look at before you take such a harsh stance on this. Words can be triggers for various reactions, some quite horrible and traumatic. I once had to play a character who was heavily implied to have been sexually assaulted. I had to ask the director whether the character had been raped. The answer was yes, but the director preferred to say "assaulted" because she once had a student with severe PTSD who, whenever anyone even said the word "rape," would have a physical reaction of panic as she suffered a flashback. Words DO have power, and they're not just words. Sometimes words can have a lot of power over us, even when we don't want them to.
Elissa M says
These comments have made me think deeper.
It's not really the words that are the problem (most of the time). It's the hateful, hate-filled person spewing them. And words can sway people's opinions like nothing else. Thus, you end up with events like the Holocaust.
So we want to shut down the hate by shutting up the words, but that won't really stop the hate. Rather than shoving the words and their speakers back under the rocks from which they crawled, perhaps we should drag them out into the light and expose them. Let truth burn away the cancer.
I know, sounds good, but it's much easier said than done.
"They only have the power that we have collectively decided they should possess."
Hmmm…not so much. For example: Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.
No one needs to decide that this has power: It has power because it's in accordance with the (rigorously determined) laws of the Universe.
There are other (non-physics) words that are similarly in accord (words that are well beyond the scope of this post).
Food (and words) for thought…
Sometimes words have the power to make people smile, too. Words like: sphincter. Admit it, you smiled.
Kim Simmons says
I so agree with you. Being artistic and sensitive, I have to remind myself not to allow how the world works sometimes to turn me jaded. When I hear “There’s not enough love in the world.”, I always roll my eyes a bit because this seems so cheesy, so simplistic—too broad. But when you look at your child, or the person in your life you love above all others, a parent, a friend, it takes on such a deep connotation. In that moment, it is about you as much as it is about the person you are feeling ‘love’ for. Words become more when it’s personal.
Hate speech creates distance and separation in one’s perspective, and makes something, or someone, less than what they are. Maybe we as a society have taken objectifying to a whole new level. Distance sure does make it easier to spew hate to try to level the field, and maybe come out on top. And ‘justified anger’ is as a reason for saying, and doing, terrible things.
That’s why I love texting! Instant editing before you hit the send button. Now, if only I could get a keyboard on my chest! Then I could edit my big mouth!
I love words but always remember Dennis Leary's comment. "The trouble with words is you never know who's mouth they've been in."
Words are just sound waves and what they "mean" is sheer convention. (Also, it's inconsistent between time periods, different languages and regional dialects.) They don't mean anything intrinsically — they are available audial agents BY WHICH you can try to send a message.
Hate speech is offensive not because of the sounds people are using but because of the message they are using them to send. Simply put, it's the message itself that sucks and THAT is what is worth being offended by.
Keisha Martin says
I recall in college my professor was going over a few racist names one of which was red neck and where it derived from i.e working in the fields and as such one would get a red neck, the meaning that I know is someone not too smart, southern and racist it took me a long time to erase that ignorance.
Also the horrible name someone calls someone that likes the same sex when that name from my research was a bundled of sticks as the saying goes sometimes words hurt more than a strike I would never want to be called the N word yet many artist use that word so its very hypocritical, great post as always Nathan hopefully our society will be more cognizant of words and use more positive words so one day we will have a peaceful society.
Neil Larkins says
As well, through the ages those in positions of power or authority have imparted words with a great deal of importance. There have been words so sacred that only the holiest could use them and words so powerful – supposedly – that they could summon demons or cause worlds to come into existance…or cease to be. The study of words is fascinating and exceedingly complex.
I wasn't going to respond,but I can't resist.:) If I've misunderstood your point, Nathan, than apologies in advance.
Words have tremendous power if we believe them. False, limiting beliefs are based on words and their implications and have been the undoing of humanity for centuries and will continue to be so. We can never rise above what we believe about ourselves – verbal concepts that imply much. As children we learn to fear the criticisms of others because we fear their affect and power over our reality and others who witness our shame. Of course no words have any power than what we imbue it, but children and many adults aren't aware of this, and that's why they can react violently to misunderstandings and accusations. Children can believe the labels placed upon them by others and – again – so can adults, causing them to operate way below their true capacity. I speculate that all of us do to one degree or another. It's only when we can divorce ourselves from any negative verbal implication and know that – in reality – we are pefect – and we can set ourselves free from the pain and suffering that certain words and labels inflict when we embrace the concept of our true selves and potential. We shouldn't need verbal validation from others, but it's the rare person who doesn't.
Nathan, I've seen you arc up on occasions over misunderstandings and accusations that you felt were unjust and/or demeaning – as we all tend to do. Such is the power of words and their meaning and the way they affect us for good or worse.
P.S.: I'm glad you wrote this, Nathan: 'People are right to be offended by them.'
I think they are especially right to be offended on behalf of someone else as that shows kindness and thoughtfulness for the feelings of others.
Alex Beecroft says
When I was young, displaying the union jack anywhere was a sure sign that you were probably a racist in sympathy with the local fascist party. People who just liked the flag or their country were scared to use it incase they came across as bigots too.
These days it's been reclaimed by the many people who chose to use it in a different way, and you can see it on people's bags and teacups etc and not think anything of it.
That's why, in my writing, if I have occasion to refer to the bodyparts at all, I make an effort to use 'cunt' in exactly the same sort of that I would use 'cock'. After all, there's nothing wrong with the organ – most of us either have one or owe our existence to one. And it rather insults me, to be honest, that normal sensible people continue to regard it as an insult. Would you shout "earlobe!" at someone and expect them to recoil? Then what makes the vagina so much worse?
tl/dr – basically I'm all for people reclaiming as much as they can for non-hateful use.
Steve MC says
What you said about how words align us with an ideology people are trying to stamp out is definitely what sparked the Oscar outcry. If it’d been “Mr. Rogers is a real dick,” everyone would know it was a joke, and that the joke was based on the contrast between that word and how he really is. But there’s no word for a guy that has the same emotional and very valid resentment for the word used for that young actress. And so the weight of the history of that word, and those who’ve had it used on them in abusive ways, came crashing down.
People got on Tiger Wood’s case yesterday for swearing, and it’s such a strange cultural taboo. As if his outburst of anger would be acceptable to them if he’d only said, “Puck!” Or how people got upset at Bono for using the word in joy, in accepting an award, saying it was f’n brilliant.
It’s always the intention that counts, and in handling words we must make that intention absolutely clear. But in the end, the only four-letter word that offends me is hate, and the words that carry that hate.
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I think this is such an interesting topic and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed pondering it! I think you raised some very interesting points! And I loved Elissa M.’s comments as well.
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” right? In the same respect, there are horrible people who have done hateful things, all while using “beautiful” and “non-offensive” words. But that doesn’t make the atrocities they committed any less atrocious. I suppose it’s a good reminder that we always have to be aware of the power we let words have on us. The moment we let words wash over us, instead of analyzing them and their true intents, we open ourselves up to being led down a road we never really wanted to travel.
On another note, I think this is an important point for authors. Not just in being cautious about accidentally giving offense, but in word choices of all types. The words: “look” “stare” and “gaze” all describe someone’s eyes focused on a target. But each word conveys a very different feel. Words are the only tools authors have (unless there are illustrations in a book), and we have to make the best selections we possibly can. That said, odds are not everyone will have the same reaction to, and understanding of, all words — but we can try to do our best. That’s also why I think it’s so important to define labels and terms. So many times I’ve “disagreed” with someone, only to discover that we actually agreed, we just had different understandings of the same word. Once our definitions were cleared up, the discussions were much richer.
AS a therapist, I am always humbled and amazed at the healing (as well as abusively destructive) power of words.
We as humans have evolved whole brain structures to deal with language and these connect to our emotional systems. They help us bond and break from each other.
The 'talking' therapies produce amazing effects on distressed people.
My motto, is to be mindful of my words, they do have power.
Anyway, great topic!
This reminds me of a discussion I once heard about the N word with regard to racism. Some believe in using it openly we eventually remove the stigma. Others believe it is all about hate, and it's a word that stings. The fact remains that words do have power, like it or not. Some, like the words mentioned above in a comment, are even offensive to society as a whole. They can make people cringe just reading them. And whether these words sting us personally or not, or make us cringe or not, they do harm the majority in most cases. And those with even a small semblance of decorum recognize this.
Daphnée Kwong Waye says
A beautiful post! Indeed, words are so powerful, and that's so stunning since they are merely a combination of letters, that we can arrange as WE choose, so they are in our control. Well, maybe that's why they can be so dangerous as well…
It is all great and wonderful to have this discussion when the fact remains that PC language is killing our ability to communicate. The culture of "no bad days" and "save your drama for your mama" promote a false reality where only positive things (words, ideas, etc) are accepted/allowed. Reality is far from this one-sided view…there are bad days…lots of them for some people. It makes people withdraw and feel like outcasts because they fear causing drama!
This kind of thinking also prevents people from telling the truth! I am not talking about hate speech or anything like that but rather the honesty needed to tell someone that they are irritating you or did something to violate your boundaries. AND that person not viewing that as an attack or being harsh!
To build healthy relationships, we need to be able to communicate both positive and negative things! We get mad at each other and we should be able to tell that person we are mad at them. It is NOT pretty but it sure does make your relationship grow if you work through it! Life is not a placid lake everyday – it is a raging, storming sea with no end in sight sometimes and we have to be able to say the words that are required when the situation presents itself.
On side note…
It is funny how people get all up in arms over calling someone a racial slur but that same person will turn around and make fun of a fat person and nobody cares. It is the same thing!!! It is hateful and derogatory but yet it is accepted. It is disgusting!
This is a great article and I have really enjoyed reading all of the follow up posts.
Why I'm writing is this. I came to this site looking for the truth, or some light to the argument that I had with my friend the other day. We were talking about Tranny's I don't remember what about exactly. She quickly scolded me and told me that the correct term is Transgender. I had no idea. The conversation was then in a shes on the defensive moral high road because she is standing up for their right terminology, and I was the offensive ignorant that had apparently no sympathy for people that were struggling with their identity. OK. Its a slang word, and I knew the word tranny even before I knew that it stood for transgender. She said its offensive to a lot of them in their community, because its apparently a word a lot of them will hear before they get beaten up. And we should be sensitive to people because even though we might not ever have that problem doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to make their existence more pleasant by choosing the words that we say more carefully.
We haven't talked in days and left off the conversation in such a weird way. Lots of distance between us. In the grand scheme of things it really doesn't matter. I can change my way of speaking to say transgender. No problem easy fix. Its all what you give meaning to in your life i suppose. People had a bad experience being treated that way with memories tied to that word and now associate people who use it as negative and confusing.
I feel like people are getting too sensitive about things. Can we just call the pot purple? Is that how the saying goes? Are we going to get to the point when people get offended when we're called human, and not the PC homo-sapiens currently inhabiting the earth ship or whatever. Hey I'm not straight, I'm actually heterosexual guys. Straight is just too boring i wish to not be referred to as that. I'm just being silly. But seriously. I'm a little lost and confused here, and want to have love and compassion, but also don't really care what people think at the same time, but also want to mend things with my friend who I'm pretty sure is ignoring me. Any thoughts?
My experience with ‘words’ that hurt. My first visceral memory relating to this subject…. I had just relocated from the Mid-West to the South-East to work for a company that recruited me. Young, fresh out-of- school and the Mid-West, it was the mid 1990’s. In polite conversation, a customer asked where I was from. I answered, Illinois. He said, “Ohhh, you’re a Yankee!”. I thought, Yankee? (I knew he wasn’t referring to the baseball team). I said, “Yankee?” and before I could ask more, he quickly asserted “yeah, a Yankee, all you people from up North”. I was knocked into another realm and was quite intrigued. “Do you mean Yankee… as in the Civil War?”. I wanted to make sure before I started laughing hysterically. He confirmed, and an entirely different perspective was born. Hmm I thought and clarified ” you’re telling me that it’s common down here, to refer to people who’ve come from the North, as Yankees in being…what, connected to the Union troops? Or the politics? Or is just a simple regional reference?”. I found all of this amusing-fascinating. And, felt a duty to inform him, in case there’s been confusion. “Generally speaking, no one, in any real-life setting(I would know), living in the ‘North’, ever refers to people living in the ‘South’ as Confederates or any other term derived from the Civil War. We would, for a variety of logical reasons, say ‘Southerner’. Also, many of us will have zero idea what exactly you mean when you just blurt out ‘you’re a Yankee’. People might, as I almost did, think you have Turrets syndrome… or you’re a pseudo-feral person who may not understand, this phrase was specific to people living within a certain area 125 years ago. That with the industrial revolution, railroads-automobiles-interstate travel, people are flung all over the place. And in that vast interim, Yankee’s became ‘Northerners’ and ‘Mid-Westerners’ and so on. However, if the locals are ‘married’, so-to-speak to this term, is there a handout, or booklet, an index maybe, where I can find ALL of these words and alternate meanings or codes. Based on this innocent, simple exchange, I get the feeling I’m going to need translation at my fingertips!”.
While I understand and agree that far too many words are misused, abused, given incorrect-hateful meanings; in order for anyone to use a word against me, to hurt me, it must be one that’s logical in my understanding AND, I would also have had to, at some point in my life, believed/agreed with the word as it’s being applied to me. It would be a rare, uncommon incident, where someone could upset, hurt or shame me, by misusing words in a sad attempt to hide that he or she feels in some way, less-than. Once you truly understand this and focus on how you ‘use’ words, after some time, you’ll realize how empowering it is…..to know what words mean. : )