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Hey, Teacher: Leave Those Words Alone

wordsA movement at the University of Michigan is currently trying to limit the use of several words and phrases, including “illegal alien,” “ghetto,” and any metaphorical use of the word “rape.” Thankfully, the program is not regulatory; it merely makes suggestions.

There are many other similar movements. This article argues against the use of the word “retard” because of its perceived insensitivity toward the mentally handicapped. Wanda Sykes was featured in a campaign to stop the negative use of the word “gay.” These instances are suggestive of a greater movement within our country as a whole: a renewed attentiveness to the power and effect of language.

As an English major, I thoroughly agree that words have power. They can hurt and even make people feel “Othered,” so to speak. I don’t condone the use of offensive language for its own sake, ever. That said, freezing the meanings of words is to give them far more power than they need have. Language evolves and changes within historical circumstances. When we paralyze the meanings of words, we stifle this process, harming both language and ourselves.

Take for example the word, “gay.” As many people remember, it used to mean “happy.” At some point, the association between homosexually-oriented people and this word developed, resulting in the idea of “gay people.” Now, the term has come to mean something like “silly” or “stupid,” most likely because of negative associations with homosexuality. Note how much the word has changed in just a half of a century. A positive association led to its connection with a group of people; a negative association with their orientation has led to its redefinition. Who is to say where the word will go in the next ten years? By politicizing it, by turning its every use into an exercise in bigotry, we are not allowing it to take on a new meaning, we’re tossing it into the dustbin of history. We’re putting offense before association.

Another, and less common, example of this process has occurred with the word “nice.” The Middle English equivalent of “nice,” meant “naïve.” It was a wholly negative attribution. Over time, however, the word came to mean what it does today. It’s used as a compliment, and provides an example of how a word can go from a negative connotation to a positive. Had Middle English speakers decided the word was too offensive, we might lack one of the most basic compliments available to contemporary Anglophones.

“Slave” and “servant” are another interesting historical case. “Slave” comes from the same root as the word “Slav” because many ancient Slavic peoples were enslaved by the Romans. In that sense, every use of the word ought to offend Slavs like myself. But it doesn’t because we are so historically distant from the connection that it has largely been forgotten. Similarly, the Latin word servus means “slave,” yet today it gives us words like “servant” and “service,” which can have significantly more positive connotations. Works of service are not associated with barbaric ancient practices.

The point is simple: words’ meanings change, and when we obsess over their contemporary denotations, we lose their immense and storied histories. We cut them off from new possibilities for meaning and understanding. We deprive ourselves of our basic linguistic diversity and put offense before the beauty of language, something which we should all learn to appreciate and protect.

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