Monday, March 9, 2015

Words Matter: A Series on Thoughtful Language Use

More than four centuries have passed since Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was first published--and nearly 20 years since middle-school me harangued my mother to drive me across town so that I could watch the Baz Luhrmann film version 6. separate. times (#LoveYouLeo; #SorryMom)--and lots of people still believe Juliet's claim that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

But what if Juliet had it all wrong? As it turns out, a rose by any other name might not smell as sweet.

That's because of the way our minds make meaning--the way we attach symbolic attributes to random sounds to make language. And it's a pretty big deal. As Benjamin K. Bergen explains, we are "constantly, automatically, tirelessly" making meaning. It's just what humans do. And we're so good at it, we don't even realize we're doing it.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about it is that we hardly notice we’re doing anything at all. There are deep, rapid, complex operations afoot under the surface of the skull, and yet all we experience is seamless understanding.
 It's rare that we stop and think part of the reason I like this cheese is because I'm calling it cheese. It'd be a lot less appealing if I called it congealed bovine mammary secretion.

Dan Piraro's take on cheese's etymology

But there is one context in which thinking about the words we use is especially important: when we're labeling groups of people. Just like the word "cheese" can erase problematic associations between a food product and coagulated udder-ooze, the words we choose to refer to particular human groups can erase--or highlight--problematic associations, assumptions, and connotations that have become imbedded in our language. Many of those imbedded connotations are holdovers from our not-so-pretty (and, sometimes, not-so-distant) past: legacies from colonial thinking; lingering sexism; leftovers of deep-seated racism and xenophobia.

And, of course, we don't *want* to use language in ways that reinforce historic injustices--we're not jerks--but it's often the case that we aren't even aware of the baggage that comes along with words we use.

So, how can we keep it PC and avoid problematic language when there's a pretty good chance we're blind to so many of the problems?

For the rest of the semester, we'll be bringing tips that can help us overcome our blindness. So be sure to stop back by for discussions of writing race (Should we write black or African American? Why?), gender (Transgender or Transgendered?), and ability (Is it okay to write about "autistic people"?). And if you've got a specific question on PC language, leave it in the comments--we'll do our best to address it.


  1. Should we let our students get away with calling women, females? (other than the fact it's grammatically incorrect).

    Thoughts, TC?

    1. This is such. a. good. quesiton.

      The short answer: there are times when it can be okay to refer to women as females in academic writing (when referring to "the female senators" or "female students," for example). But I don't think that's what you're talking about?

      If you're talking about how AAVE users use "female" to refer to women--not as an adjective, but as a noun--the answer is a BIG HEARTY NO. That usage isn't okay. And for lots of reasons.

      In fact, there are so many reasons (and so many different opinions even inside the community that uses the term), that I'll be writing a whole post about it.

      So check in next week for a long-form exploration of the issue. I haven't worked it all out, but I'm pretty sure said exploration will involve some buzzfeed linkage, rantings from @Luvvie, and a Chris Brown video.

  2. In addition, diction, plain language, and directness can have dumb or good correlations.

    For example, would you want your significant other to tell you A) or B)?

    A) In my opinion and for all intents and purposes, I verily believe that I am in love with you.
    B) I need you. I love you. I have to be with you.

    1. Most definitely option B.

      One of my favorite George Carlin bits is about direct, plain language and how the frilly, convoluted euphemisms we often use can erase humanity and reinforce messed up power dynamics. it's a good one.

  3. Great topic! We look forward to reading along.

  4. Here's Carlin on "stuff," which gets to word choice later on in the bit.