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The Importance of Language

Why what we say matters

I had a conversation a few weeks ago that got me thinking about the importance of language. Our discussion stemmed from the swathe of famous figures accused of inappropriate behaviour, often towards women and ethnic groups. Many of these people have been forced to admit their wrongs, while others cling to the notion they’ve been unfairly accused, and some may well have been. I’ve observed a backlash from certain members of society, somehow fearing they are now banned from paying someone a compliment or giving their opinion. Two things matter here; first, your position, particularly when you are representing more than just yourself, and second, the language you choose to use.

We all know Trump’s history (no, I won’t use his title until he demonstrates he knows its honour) and the infamous ‘pussy grabbing’ scandal. It was described as ‘locker-room talk’, and I don’t doubt people do discuss their sexual exploits with their friends. I seriously doubt they boast about sexual assault. Disturbingly, Trump doesn’t see the difference. His references to Mexicans, among others, as ‘animals’ draws haunting comparisons with Nazis calling Jews rats and members of the Rwandan genocide squads naming Tutsis cockroaches. Labelling entire groups with derogatory terms changes things – how long does it take for a name to become a belief?

We wear no mark; we belong to every class; we permeate every class of the community from the highest to the lowest.

Emmeline Pankhurst

In the wake of Brexit and Trump’s America, hate crimes, racial abuse, and violence are on the increase. Perhaps you think the words of those in the spotlight have nothing to do with it, but I can’t agree. When leaders express themselves, their position lends weight to their rhetoric and legitimises others to not only repeat it but act.

I live in Scotland, the country in the UK that overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU. Even still, shortly after the Brexit vote I was dismayed to discover a Neo-Nazi group had put up stickers declaring ‘white zones’ in parts of my city. Their hateful signs had pictures showing the Nazi salute and proclaimed homosexuality as evil. Of course, these people had their views before Brexit, but they didn’t raise their ugly heads until after the referendum. Somehow, they got the idea people agreed with them and it was okay to start advertising. It’s no coincidence.

Obviously, the language we use on the global stage is crucial, but it is no less important in every day life. The right words can bring someone down just as easily as they can motivate. They can elicit a range of emotions and bring about any number of reactions. Let’s say you want to give someone feedback. You could tell them their work is shit, or you could give them pointers on how to improve. Perhaps the overall goal is the same, but which do you think will have the desired effect? I wouldn’t work harder for someone who demeaned or embarrassed me. Would you?

As a writer, language is everything to me. I use it to build worlds, craft characters, and take my readers on a journey. But I saw the value in it long before I started writing – many happy hours of my childhood were spent devouring books – and in the age of social media it’s more important than ever. Great words have changed the world. Would it be the same without Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King or Martin Niemöller? Language is the expression of ideas and a force for good, but only if we recognise how it shapes the minds of those who hear and read it.

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out.

Martin Niemöller

I’d like to finish this post on a creative note. I did a poll with some fellow writers recently, asking them what their favourite word was and why. I’ve included some of the best below. Your task for the coming week, should you choose to accept it, is to think about each of these words and use them to positive effect. Make the world better and brighter with what you say.

Elbow – it’s random but I love it (Wendy Steele).

Serendipity – just hearing or saying it gives me a degree more peace.

Bubbles – it’s a word I can’t say without smiling.

Gossamer – it’s fragile and mysterious.

Spangled – I think it goes back to a favourite childhood sweet.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – because silly is good (and unicorn because … just because).

Feminism – it helps me think of strong, no bullshit women all over the world who take care of things like a boss.

Ineffable – because words can’t describe it.

Gobbledygook – it conjures up phantasmagorical imagery (phantasmagorical – can I have two?).

Fantasy – I wander unashamedly into areas hidden deep within my vivid imagination.

Susurration – makes me think of trees and soft flowing streams and whispers of love.

Happy – just saying it emotes a smile from me and the one I mention it to.

A general outpouring of love also came forth for shenanigans, skulduggery, persnickety, hobnobbing, discombobulated, and a whole host of swear words. Sometimes, you just need to belt out a resounding expletive …

Comment below with your favourite word. 🙂

1 Comment

  1. Wendy Steele says:

    Great blog post, and I’m happy to be included. I love cerulean too!

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