But They’re Just Words

By Joyce Clapp

In an online forum that I frequent, we recently had a disagreement (it happens in large, diverse online communities). The forum is for people in married-like relationships, however the community member defines “married-like”. However, this particular community is very heavily female skewed, and people forget that not everyone in the community is a biological woman legally married to a biological man. One of the moderators posted, reminding us to use inclusive languages in posts (such as significant other). Referring to your SO however you liked is fine, but we’re asked to not display assumptions through our language about other people’s relationships.

As someone who lives with my partner of eight years (and my partner’s mother, and our three cats), I appreciated the reminder, but didn’t think too much of it. Inclusive language is easy and just makes sense, right?

Apparently not, for the post is at 763 comments of discussion.

In another online forum, people were discussing the difference between e-books and paper books. However, they were referring to paper books as “real books”. When I commented on it, my best friend said “Oh, you know what they’re talking about.” I may, but that doesn’t stop people’s words from downplaying the growing prominence of e-books in our society. Intentional or not, that is the meaning that comes through when calling paper books “real”.

Words are so important. Words are symbols that carry weight in our society. Language is a one of the few tools we use every day (every minute!) Because language is so common and so necessary in our lives, our culture is simultaneously dependent upon our language, and yet, doesn’t encourage treating that language as important. People will say “I get so tired of having to be PC!” That statement reveals something about the importance we put on how the people around us feel and the care we put (or don’t) into our interactions. Our language and our choice of words communicates (consciously or not) information about our political beliefs, how we feel about the people around us, our educational levels, how we use that education, and how much we respect ourselves and our environments (and that’s just the start of what our language says).

As students, instructors, and other professionals in an online environment, they’re not “just words”. They’re all we have to convey our knowledge and our intentions. I often find myself typing “I think I know what you meant here, but I can’t grade you on what I think you meant – I have to grade you on what’s here.” Over time in a variety of online educational settings, I’ve found myself adjudicating disputes in discussion boards between well meaning parties who didn’t chose their words well. Words matter.

I call on you to be deliberate in both your written and spoken language, to use words well, and to be kind in your communications with other people. The next time you start to say “Oh, it’s just a word!” ask yourself what that word, as a label, direction, or endearment, might mean to the persons you are communicating with – and then act accordingly.

President Obama’s “Words Don’t Matter” speech from 2008.

3 responses to “But They’re Just Words

  1. Beautiful post! Thank you! I fall prey to that problem in my own speech and writing sometimes, if for slightly different reasons. Many of my friends from high school and beyond self-identify as “queer,” and with that experience in my background I tend to use the word as an insider — which can be a problem in the some circles, given that I’m a straight guy (and legally married by Georgia statutes, and thus, by reciprocity, according to every state in the US). It probably doesn’t help that despite a rabidly egalitarian mindset I’m not a huge fan of restricting myself to the PC lexicon when less-PC words might be better at getting my point across. I distinctly remember making my (all-white) MFA workshop squirm when I used “the N-word” in a story; no one seemed to get that I used it because it was a first-person narrative through the mouth of an ignorant, racist narrator, and the use of that word was intended to heighten the audience’s remove and highlight the unreliability of that narrator. I’ve never submitted the story for publication, so I don’t have any feedback from an audience any wider than my workshop (not even slush-pile readers), so I have no way of knowing if it really worked.

    It’s a tough line to walk sometimes. Obviously, we all do well to consciously avoid alienating anyone with our word choices. On the other hand, I firmly believe that non-PC language can be used very effectively in pointing out the fallacy of othering mindsets, when in those same situations the use of strictly PC language can bowdlerize or neuter the argument. I try to keep a tight leash on my own racist, heteronormative, or otherwise othering presumptions, and I guess my issue with strictly-PC language is that it comes from an erroneous assertion that those presumptions, or similar presumptions, are not present in all of us to some extent. I firmly believe that the best way to combat those presumptions, in ourselves and in our society, is to recognize that they do exist, and to continuously remind ourselves and others that they exist, and to remain aware of them so they don’t sneak in and get a foothold when we’re not looking.

    Where bigotry exists, it’s our job to call it out. I suppose I take something of a George Carlin approach to that task sometimes.

  2. Jay, your story reminds me of the controversy about the edited version of Huck Finn that was in the news earlier this year (it removed the “n” word from the book). However, the use of that word is so deliberate in the book, its usage helping shed light on Huck’s realization that Jim is, in fact, a *man* just like any other man.

  3. Mr. Clemens knew exactly what he was doing with that language. I have to giggle at the accusations that his language was racist and in need of being bowdlerized, given the thoroughly anti-racist point of that novel.