Thursday, December 3, 2009

Word Power

There is no doubt that words are powerful. Almost everyone has heard the iconic rhyme "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." It is repeated to children by teachers, parents or other adults all the time when name calling becomes a problem, but most children soon realise that words can hurt. Words can not only hurt, but heal, offend, compliment, or insult. Words can really do just about anything. The fact that children use name-calling at all proves that the power behind words is known from a young age. But words alone are not always so powerful, it is how words are used that puts meaning and connotation behind them.

Some people are particularly sensitive to the meaning behind words. Not the definition of a word, but what the speaker or writer is actually referring to. Rosalie Maggio in her article "Bias-Free Language: Some Guidelines," says, in reference to choosing the correct wording, "Bias-free language is logical, accurate, and realistic. Biased language is not." Maggio goes on to suggest that sexist, racist, and other possibly offensive terms be replaced with more generic terms. Unfortunately for Maggio, some terms, while potentially offensive, do not have a bias-free synonym that makes sense. Calling Santa Clause by his Italian female alter-ego Belfana in order to battle sexism hardly seems like a winning argument, as Michiko Kakutani points out in his article "The Word Police." You can find a guide to bias-free language at this site, along with a list of suggested alternative words.

It is of my opinion that some words can be offensive, and that a bias-free alternative can be useful, but not in all situations. For instance, classic works of fiction should not have all terms deemed offensive removed, nor should titles be changed to reflect a more politically correct view. As Brieanne Graham said in her blog post of the same topic, use the English language with "discretion and common sense."


  1. You make some very good points in this post about that classic children's rhyme, Cassidy. Words not only have the power to cause a lot of harm, but can also be used to support or compliment a person. Children, as shown by this common rhyme, learn this at a young age, and need to be taught that some language is considered offensive or inappropriate.

    I also agree with your point about the language in classic literature. If those words were deemed appropriate when the literature was written, then it should be read in context. Those who typically read classics are generally aware of this, and will not be offended by language that is now considered offensive.

  2. I really like and agree with your point about language in classic works of fiction. Often writers use words that are appropriate for the time period and culture of the characters, and to change them simply because they are currently considered politically incorrect or offensive takes away from the autenticity and original meaning of the story.

    In regards to the saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me," I've always found it a strange saying. It seems to me that if a person was being verbally abused, saying this to their assailant is only encouraging him or her to attack with sticks and stones insead!

  3. You're absolutely right that it's the intention behind words that makes them hurtful, rather than the word itself. If nothing else the movements to reclaim nigger and queer prove that speech only has the power we give it.

  4. I loved your use of "sticks and stones". It was perfect for this blog post. I also thought your point about the meaning behind the word is the hurtful part, not the word itself, very insightful.

    I also agree with your last point. Bias-free language can not be used all the time. It seems silly to change literature that contains these words. Only the author himself/herself should have the ability to change the literature he/she wrote.