Watch Your Mouth Part 3: Use Your Big-Kid Thesaurus
Friday, January 29, 2010
In the course of discoursing on the web, I've witnessed and participated in many conversations about semantics and language.
I've seen discussions about whether the word "niggardly" is racist or not, whether or not the origin of the phrase"rule of thumb" refers to domestic violence, and whether the term "lame" has entered common usage to the extent that people who have difficulty walking should just stop being offended and shut up about it, already.
Now, I know that the word "niggardly" is not etymologically derived from a racial slur, but so what? If my listener/reader doesn't know this, do I really want to derail from whatever topic it is I'm addressing by pressing that debate, just so I can sound like a Dickens character?
Which leads me to the most complex question on this issue (for me, at least): Why am I choosing the words I'm choosing?
Am I choosing certain words and phrases because I think they will help me establish my own identity?
The choice of the handle PortlyDyke, for example, is rich with reclamation for me, but also serves as a handy auto-filter -- if people are offended or put off by my screen name at first read, I can guess that they're probably going to be offended by a lot of things I say, and if they chuckle upon reading or hearing it (which happens a lot) I figure they're probably going to appreciate my sense of humor.
Am I choosing language that helps me bridge a gap?
As a 53-year-old who interacts with online communities which are often composed of much younger people, I find that I often refrain from using idioms that "date" me. When I find myself communicating with someone who is relatively new to feminist thought, I may not use phrases that are commonly used in Feminism 301 conversations. If I'm talking to my 83-year-old mother about my spiritual views (which is rare, I grant you, but it happens from time to time), I tend to use phrases that are somewhere between her notion of the Big White Guy in the sky and my ideas about a Vast Organizing Consciousness.
Am I choosing idioms because I think they are going to "buy" me some kind of acceptance?
This is a slippery edge for me, really -- because at the same time that I'm dropping some terms that would peg me for an old fogie, I might also slip in some words and phrases so that I can sound "hep", even if I don't use these in my day-to-day speech (and see, that right there is an example of an old-fogie word -- "hep" -- which is a dead giveaway). This behavior, by the way, can go horridly, horridly wrong (like when your Dad tries to sound cool in front of your friends).
Also, in the same moment that I'm searching for words that Mom can relate to, I might be filing off the edges of my own belief system, in the hope that my world-view would be more accepted by my family. Which sucks.
Sadly, these attempts to purchase acceptance inauthentically rarely really work in the long run. An example I'd point to is Rachel Maddow. There are many things about her show that I absolutely adore -- the way she opens interviews with potentially combative people by asking them if she's gotten the fact right in her intro, the general fastidiousness of her civility toward them when debating even the most difficult issues, etc., -- but there is one thing I hate: Her continuing use of the words "lame" and "lame-itude" as an idiom for "bad". I even wrote to her about it (gently, civilly).
At first, I thought my reaction to her use of this term was "just" being offended by the ablism demonstrated (which would have been enough) -- but I realized later that another thing that grated on me was that she seemed to me to be using this able-ist term in order to sound cool. There is just something about the emphasis she uses when she says it that rings to me of the 11th-grader who's trying to get in with the popular kids. It seems out of place in the midst of her usual Rhodes-Scholar presentation, and it jars the hell out of me every single time. I want to say to her: "Rachel, you're the first out news-lesbian headlining her own show on a major network. You're cool enough already."
I think it's important for me to know why I'm speaking or writing as I am. I think it's important for me to be clear about my intention when I communicate.
For me, the only reason to post something like this to a blog is to communicate and connect with other people, with the intention of raising their consciousness (and my own, which happens both during the writing process and subsequent discussion in comments), and I don't think I'm going to be very effective at that if I am leaning on idioms that a) have underlying meaning that I don't support, b) are inserted to somehow buff up my image rather than communicate my point, or c) I already know are likely to offend people that I want to communicate and connect with.
I have found, in every single case where I have used an offensive word or phrase, or undermined my own communication by employing an idiom which was rooted in the language of oppression -- let me repeat -- I have found in every single case that there were other words available.
Other words that not only didn't alienate my intended audience, but which usually spoke my point more eloquently.
To those who would argue that maintaining this level of consciousness about language is an onerous burden laid upon them by the evils of political-correctness, I will simply say:
There are over 200,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary -- many of them languishing in the linguistic lethargy of left-behind lingo. If you really don't care who you offend, or how much you sabotage your own communication in the process of maintaining your "with it" factor, you might actually sound edgier if you use something like "That's so absolutely inverted" instead of "That's so gay" -- because never forget -- the really cool kids don't repeat the offensive slurs -- they invent them.
For those of you who find that the effort toward clear, responsible communication is a yoke which does not chafe you, remember -- there is no shame in visiting Thesaurus.com.
In other words, there are always other words.
Posted byPortlyDyke at 11:00 AM