A WORD IS AS POWERFUL AS WE MAKE IT
I have often been told, “a word is just as powerful as we let it be.” I think it was one of George Carlen’s arguments against what he saw as a prudish, unrealistic objection to words that many people found repugnant. He felt that, if everyone just took the words up and accepted them they would loose their power. They would just fade away than then people could go back to speaking more pleasantly.
I disagreed with him. Those treasured four letter words that he defended so vehemently were created expressly to be – well – unpleasant, and, as soon as they loose their ability to offend, people discover – or invent – others.
So I take frequent stands against what I see (and hear) as vulgarity. I let it be known that I do not appreciate it. Actually I find it lazy and dull. There are so many marvelously insulting words in the English language already available if folks would just learn enough to use them well.
An example: I was married to a very short man. He made Napoleon and his complex seem tame. His whole world was affected by his lack of height.
We fought – a lot. But in all those fights I managed to avoid the one word that I knew would kill him. I never called him “little.”
It would have ended with me winning the battle, but it would have destroyed my opponent and I didn’t really want to do that. No four letter word could have done that for me – or to him.
On the other hand, there are words that are perfectly good words that have been corrupted into being accusatory, pejorative, and/or insulting when they really shouldn’t be.
I remember reading an interview in which Harry Belafonte was asked how he felt about being described as a “tall, handsome black man.” He said that he would prefer to be thought of as tall and handsome without the BLACK.
Admittedly I have never experienced being black. And being white doesn’t often come up as an accusation. At least not in my part of the world.
Mr. Belafonte heard black as – what – limiting? Pejorative? Condescending? It certainly has been used frequently as all those things.
On the other hand, if a tall slender, magnificent blonde walked in to a room, no one would leave out the word blonde in describing her. It is part of the whole picture and is sometimes helpful.
I remember one time I was asked to meet a producer friend of a friend of mine. She told me his name was Alan and he was VERY tall. VERY good looking. VERY talented.
What she didn’t tell me was that the man was black. It really would have made it a whole lot easier to identify him as the gorgeous black man sitting two tables down who smiled at me rather tentatively several times before coming over to ask If I were, by chance, Betty? And was I waiting for Alan. In which case, here he was!
I ran in to this sensitivity while I was teaching script writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. We were looking through some old scripts and one of my students – a black student – called my attention to a description of a guest on the show as “BLACK”
Why, he wanted to know, would they point out that the actor was black? Would they do that if it were a white actor?
I was able to tell him that, if the show were predominately a black show then the introduction of a character who was white would definitely be noted.
It wasn’t an accusation, just part of the description.
Later, I ran into another variation on this theme while working on a Jewish newspaper. I used the word Jew in a headline.
WRONG! The acceptable word was Jew-ish. Same reasons, different presentation.
The word Jew was seen as – what – limiting? Pejorative? Accusatory?
Well, yes. Through history the word Jew has certainly been used in an inflammatory way. So now a Jew is Jew-ish.
It is a word that should bring to mind amazing discoveries in the worlds of medicine, music, science, religion…name it, you will find Jews right there at the top of the heap..
My point, which I have been around the barn a couple of times before reaching, is that these terms must go back to being accepted as descriptive. If the person being described as Black, or Jewish, or Catholic, or Latino etc refuse to recognize it as anything less than a compliment, people who hate will have to look elsewhere for their targets.
At least it’s a place to start.