Riya Rajeev Just now·10 min read I’ve always thought words were insanely cool. I know that sounds nerdy, but bear with me a moment. We managed to create this incredible communication system, so that we went from being cavemen to creating cartoons about them. But, equally, we created some not so progressive language. Even today, we still use a lot of negative terminology, derogatory terms and slurs, and the question of “what’s in a word?” comes up often. So, I wanted to explore that, and show how we can never really move forward if our words don’t keep evolving with us. Now, this is going to be a bit of a long read so armchair philosophers may want to take a second to find that comfortable position and your favourite cushion.
FROM FLINT TO THE FLINTSTONES
The creation of language allowed for us to go beyond just our basic needs and build up the world around us today. It helped us create complex schools of thought and great philosophy, and enabled us to discover and communicate scientific breakthroughs that inform our ways of life. Think about that for a second! If we didn’t have the language to communicate all this, then how could we have moved on from those primitive stages of human life?
Isn’t that the basic difference between us and animals? There are so many incredibly intelligent animals around us, and they all have their own complex roles in their ecosystems. But these are things that are instilled in them by nature, roles they play out by instinct. They aren’t able to progress to creating socially constructed systems like we have or think up abstract concepts or contemplate the meaning of life , and a huge part of that is the fact that they don’t have a communication system like ours.
It’s pretty clear that we needed language to be able to move forward. But then is it not also true that language, in the same way, could cause us to move backwards, or even stay stagnant?
WHAT’S IN A WORD?
With the rise of our interaction with social media and the rise of powerful human rights movements in the last year or so, we’ve been talking about words and their impact more and more.
It was interesting to see that a lot of people agreed with me when I asked whether words can shape the way we view things and if they can be more powerful than actions. It was also interesting to see that some didn’t. And that’s not to say anyone’s wrong, it’s just an observation.
I believe that words have everything to do with shaping the way we view things, and there’s a few examples I can give you of that. Think about salespeople, for example. A salesperson is selling, say, a table. They go up to one customer and say,
“Well, it’s carved oak, it’s two feet long, comes with six chairs.”
Ehhh, right? Whatever! So is/does every other table. But now imagine they go over to someone else and they say,
“This table is made of the richest oak. It was hand carved, so you have two feet of intricate design, each groove telling you a part of a story, that six of you can sit around and soak in as you sit together.”
Customer 1 won’t think much of this table, but Customer 2 might think it sounds amazing. They then form their individual opinions on it. They tell their pals. Customer 1’s friends couldn’t care less, Customer 2’s friends rush out to buy it. And thus, this is passed on and a bunch of people have different opinions on that same, exact table based solely on the words used to describe it.
Now, what happens when the table, is replaced with a whole social group and when the words used to describe them are derogatory, or slurs or rooted in stereotype? If we take someone with more influence, like a politician, a celebrity, or maybe an influencer, then these words and opinions go an even longer way.
And, okay, so you might be thinking — just because they present it in a certain way doesn’t mean that I would let that affect me! I could reject that notion. I agree! You’re no sponge. But here’s the thing about language. Words have so much more to them than just the letters they’re made up of — they have weight, history, images and connotations attached to them. Our communication system and our ability to comprehend complex and abstract concepts thrives on these things. And we just cannot help but internalise them on some level.
The power of words ;) a joke, of course. image from Accidental Trump tweet becomes Internet meme | TheHill
What was it about the way the Salesperson spoke to Customer 2 that made that table seem more attractive? It was the images and ideas that we attach to the words they used. “Richest oak” — I’m thinking luxury, I’m seeing smooth, deep brown. “Hand-carved”, I’m thinking care, exclusivity, artisanal — maybe I’m supporting a small vendour, maybe this makes me a good person? “Intricate” — detailed, beautiful. “Telling a story” — culture, history, importance. I love feeling like a good person. I love feeling cultured. I love things that are pleasing to the eye and make my house look good. Sold.
All the words we used had positive connotations, pleasing images. Therefore, we have a good overall impression of the table.
Now when we take a word like a slur, or a derogatory term, what are the connotations of that? If you take a racial slur, the connotations are negative, of course. They are a nod to a heavy history of pain and gross injustice on a personal or a bigger historical level. They reduce a person to degrading and negative stereotypes. If you take a derogatory term used in reference to people with neurodivergences, like the r* word, the connotations are once again negative, charged with ideas of unintelligence or incapability that are thoroughly degrading and untrue.
So, when we say “what’s in a word?” connotations and images are what we need to look at. Connotations are what we internalise when we hear a word. And the connotation connoisseurs of the world; our politicians, influencers, salespeople, etc. use them to their advantage to manipulate the impact they have on the people they’re speaking to.
A relevant example from 2020 is the connotations we gave the name Karen! It’s not to say anyone called Karen is a bad person (look at this Karen — a legend!), but see how we could manipulate the associations that we make with the name and create this shared context of understanding? When we hear this name we have immediate images of the ‘speak to the manager’, complicit person in society. image from: This Karen spotted protesting : pics (reddit.com)
INTERNALISATION and SOCIALISATION
A really interesting example of this is one that my movement teacher gave our class. Imagine if someone instructed you to lift your elbows. They said, “try lifting your elbows” …there’s something in that word try that immediately makes me process this as a challenge. Why is this something I have to attempt? Will I be unable to do this? Will this be hard? It may even process as ‘this is difficult.’ This subconscious psychological process then dominos to have a physical effect. I might tense up now, or hinder my own ability to move in the most efficient way. I might suddenly find myself unable to do something that I probably would’ve been fine doing. Now, of course, this process here is put under a microscope, and you wouldn’t take conscious notice of it, but it can have some very real effects.
On the other hand, imagine the teacher had said, “allow your elbows to lift.” There’s something about allow that has connotations of freedom, control, room, and ownership of my own movement. It will happen. I can make this happen.
Do you see?
We internalise these connotations and they have a mental and physical effect on us. It is exactly the same when it comes to negative language. When we use derogatory terms, these words and their negative connotations are internalised both by us and by the person we direct them at.
Take, once again, this awful insult referencing people with neurodivergences. These connotations of unintelligence, incapability, etc. are what we internalise, whether we realise it or not. In terms of those of us who are neurotypical, this can affect the way we view people with neurodivergences directly. It can affect the way we treat them and our opinions about that social group.
And this can affect how we speak about them. When we use the term with other people, we encourage the spread of the use of that word and, with that, the spread of that narrow-minded perspective.
Besides this, the use of this word also affects the people we are speaking of. People with neurodivergences may internalise the negative stereotypes and connotations attached to the term; it can bring up personal pain and perhaps even lead them to limit themselves, believing they are incapable of doing something or that people are unlikely to take them seriously if they did.
I know for a fact that, as a South Asian WOC in the UK, the negative stereotypes and the words used against me led me to believe so many negative things about myself for the longest time. A belief that I was unattractive, or weird, or had to behave a certain way, or that I didn’t belong. Because of the words people used, I internalised that dark skin had connotations with being ugly. That being different was being weird. That dated mindsets were fact.
Thankfully, that’s something I learnt to unlearn as time went on, and won’t be carrying with me.
But so many dated mindsets like these are passed down. These words with their negative connotations were coined at a time when the majority mindset is a rather backwards, discriminatory or conservative one. The language is a direct reflection of popular belief and society at the time. Times have changed, but those words haven’t. We like to say that society has moved beyond the period where those dated mindsets were the norm, but have we truly moved past those views if we’re still using the same old words?
If we don’t stop to review and change our language, it’s passed on and on and on. And the negative beliefs that it was originally associated with go with it! If we carry on using terms like the r* word, not only does it okay it, but the mentality that neurodivergent people are unintelligent goes with it. If we carry on making sexist jokes, not only does it normalise it, but the dated mentality that women are lesser goes with it, whether you intend it to or not. If we carry on using racial or homophobic slurs then the pain, the weight of its history, the stereotypes and injustice go with it.
And so, there is no way to move forward if we carry on using the same terminology we used, especially for marginalised groups, that we used in the past. Unless these words are either eradicated or reclaimed*, we stay stuck.
If we want to keep evolving as a society, creating more equality, open-mindedness and genuine harmony, we have to keep adapting our language and understand that it is an ever-evolving process. That the idea of “that’s just what we said back then” doesn’t apply anymore, nor does “that’s what I’ve grown up around.”
And I want to take a second to say there’s nothing wrong with unintentionally using words like these, so long as we admit the mistake and change it! I certainly have used flawed language or said unintentionally harmful things, purely because they were things I’d heard before and I didn’t realise the impact of them. The important thing is realising that impact and making a conscious effort to adapt that language.
*A NOTE ON RECLAIMING WORDS
There are, of course, instances where terms such as racial slurs can be used by members of that race. This is a case of a group of people trying to reclaim a word, a word that was dragged through a painful history and warped, so the connotations are now weighted with the great injustices that that race had to go through. They are trying to take ownership once again of that word; a way to reclaim power after having been oppressed for so long. Here, the language and the actions in history are intertwined, and reclaiming this word is separating them.
Not to take any weight away from this idea of race, but there’s a simple metaphor I use to explain this when it’s hard to understand — and it totally can be if you haven’t heard of this before or aren’t a POC, and that’s absolutely fine if you’re making an effort to understand it now.
Have you ever associated a smell to a certain memory, or certain time in your life? Well, I used to wear the same perfume to school every day in high school (Victoria’s Secret Amber Romance!) and it was my sort of ‘signature,’ or at least I liked to think it was. However, the two years I wore that perfume were two pretty bad years for me personally. I had some really negative experiences. So, a few years after, whenever I smelt it, I felt sick and anxious and fell into a very negative mind frame. But I used to love that smell! So, one day I decided that I would change the associations I made with it. I started wearing it every time I went out to do something that made me happy — when I went on a date, on my birthday, to a party, anything fun.
Reclaiming a word is kind of like this, of course way more important and way heavier, but it’s the same concept of taking back ownership and changing the associations made with the word.