The Power of Words

By Erika Witt

To those who contest a name or a word, I urge you to think of language for language’s sake. Try to look at the shortsightedness that exists when designating a word as “taboo” or “vulgar.” Denouncing words and their meanings is akin to an attack on language. It does not do us any good to cast away words for the feelings they may arouse, because what they really aim to communicate will be lost in this stigmatization. It is quasi-censorship, and this kind of attack on rhetoric is incredibly ignorant, in poor taste, and unfortunately, all too frequent.

This is not to say that words always convey what we want to hear, nor to suggest that words are in any way neutral, but to shy away from a word for the fear of what it expresses is perhaps one of the most harmful things we can inflict upon our own intellect. We study language, rhetoric, communication— but to what avail, if we rashly compartmentalize words, categorizing them as dirty or distasteful? To do so, we are shooting the messenger, for a word itself is just a vehicle for meaning.

Of course, words carry power; language is perhaps the most important tool of power that humans possess.  But one must remember that what meaning a word conjures in ourselves, is a product of its contextualization in society, and how we have constructed our own identity in relation. Thus, often is the case, that when words become the target of our critique, it becomes necessary to decipher whether these critiques are merely an ad hominen deflection from the real issue at hand. For example, how many more times will To Kill A Mockingbird be banned from libraries for the discomfort it causes by its use of the phrase “nigger”? In precisely this case, in shirking away from an offensive word, we have lost the value of literary criticism towards the very real racism that still permeates today’s societies.

When we coat lexeme in euphemisms, when every utterance requires self-constraint, and once-sterile words need to be filtered for political-correctness, perhaps we should step back for a moment, and examine why we as a society have come to contextualize a word in the framework of something shameful. Only in looking at language through such a lens, can we assess whether a word actually deserves such a connotation.

“We do not want to condemn the word. It is, after all, a mighty instrument; it is the means by which we tell each other of our emotions, the way in which we influence others. Words can do immeasurable good and also terrible injuries. It is true that at first there was the deed; the word came later. It was in some respects cultural progress when the deed became word. But the word was originally a spell, a magical act, and it has retained much of its power.”

-Sigmund Freud

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