I have always found words to carry great power. The pen is mightier than the sword, they say, and I believe it to be true. As an avid reader in my youth, words built worlds and tore them down; a good book could quiet me from any crying spell, and I’d lose myself in my imagination and the words on the page during recess time. Context clues helped me decipher a definition for a string of letters that had no meaning to me before that moment. When the context wasn’t strong enough, I’d struggle to lift the heavy, musty, and trusty Random House dictionary on my parents’ mantle, and find the word nestled amongst so many others that make up our English language. I should’ve become a lexicographer, I almost wonder why that was never on my list of things I wanted to be when I grew up—maybe because I’m too scared to wield all of that power. In high school and college, I was friends’ walking thesaurus, or so many nicknamed me. On Facebook now, friends send me memes related to my insistence on grammatical and orthographical integrity, and many sigh in Google chats when I insist on correcting their faux pas.
My insistence on perfection in language, although there’s truly no such thing, is because a word can be so powerful. Poetry requires precision, and it’s found in even a common conversation. Deeply personal and emotional conversations make accessing the mental language library more difficult, but more necessary, because a misplaced word can mean the difference between feeling empathized with or patronized, and a poorly structured sentence the difference between loved and hated. When language is used too casually, its positive power is lost, but words still carry their same ability to hurt regardless of the care with which they’re used.
It is because of this that I tend to retreat to fact-based arguments when talking about loaded words; racism, racist, the n-word, or any other slur come to mind as the most frequent topics of these discussions. It is a retreat, because it’s wholly unsatisfying to the person trying to argue with me. A person is arguing the emotional effect that being called a participant in racism or not being allowed to say a Black person is racist has on their psyche. They feel invalidated that these are not factually arguable, and they have alternate definitions of these words in their mind, with no intention of fidelity to language, just their own lexicon. I can’t argue the emotions, but I can suggest that they learn the terminology that is actually common to discussions of race and racially loaded words, such as White privilege, and each word or phrase’s interpretation history, if they want to have these conversations in an honest and productive way, even if only within themselves. You might have a definition for a word, but that doesn’t make you right. When you’re thinking only to yourself, it’s good enough, but in conversation with others, common language is necessary. That’s why dictionaries exist, and why lexicographers have a job. HypheNation will soon be posting a Dictionary of Terminology (will link back once it’s up) as a resource for those souls wishing to embark on this conversational journey, and we hope to join you in creating a better way of saying what we mean. Please post in the comments any words that you’d like to see defined academically. Thanks for reading.
This post was inspired by: Repossession: Reclaimed Slurs and Lexicography.