Words Mean Things
I recently wrote about Lake Superior State University’s top 12 useless, overused, or misused words. Since first reading about that and then writing up a blog reporting on it, I have been thinking about the power of words. In the simplest state, words mean things, and sometimes those things carry with them historical power while other times they are just what they are without any insinuation otherwise.
Regardless, though, sometimes we all say words without really thinking about it. We say them because we have heard others use words in that way, or we just do not think about the power behind a word. But we should.
The article on CNN mentioned one such word: asshole. From now on I will just call it the A-word in respect for those who find it offensive. NPR reported about Geoffrey Nunberg’s book, “Ascent of the A-word,” which spurned the information in the CNN article. Accordingly, the A-word came from World War II GIs (mainly men) who used it to express frustration at their arrogant superiors. It meant that somebody had gotten above himself.
GIs brought the use of the A-word home from the war and what used to be an anatomical word became an emotional description of someone else. Then in the 1970s, feminists used it to replace less aggressive words for men who mistreat their wives, girlfriends, sisters, female friends, or any female in general. Women took a hold of the A-word as a rejection of formality. They could use obscene language like men and apply that to men.
The A-word is a bit ordinary now. People use it to describe their bosses, friends, family, and even strangers. It’s used to describe men and women alike. It’s still negative and aggressive, but we hear and use it more today.
Of course, the A-word is not the only word with historical connotation and impact. Many words in the English language pack power beyond their simple definitions. Nigger, Bitch, Idiot, Retard, and Gay are all words that carry a history of degradation and implication with them. Even writing them here was difficult for me. I feel sort of dirty just doing it because whether we like it or not, when we use these words flippantly, we are applying those implication, degradations, and histories. All five of those words mean lots of things, and we must use them appropriately. Calling someone a retard (or any of those other words) in jest is not appropriate.
These are not the only words that pack such a punch. The F-word in all its incarnations does the same as do words like Grammar-Nazi. There are many uses of Nazi like this; Femi-Nazi, Soup-Nazi, and Grammar-Nazi are three of the most popular, but more and more people use fill-in-the-blank and Nazi together.
To use Nazi in such a frivolous way dismisses the shear horror that the Nazis caused. To be a stickler on grammar is not the same as to be a Nazi. Words like Grammar-Nazi carry the allegation that one is willing to kill other humans so that people use proper grammar. I bet that even the most stringent of grammarians would not kill someone for misusing grammar. But when we use Grammar-Nazi, we make those accusations. That is the power of words.
As I have blogged about before, censorship is dangerous. I am not trying to censor the use of any of these words or of any words I did not discuss that hold similar power. I do want to insist that we think about what we say and how we say it. We must be aware of what words mean. We must consider not only their denotation, but we must also consider their connotation and their historical meanings. Words are powerful. We must respect that power.
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