When I was a child and I first encountered the saying "sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me", I was genuinely confused. It seemed quite clear to me that whoever came up with the phrase had never met Yoruba people.
My mother tongue, Yoruba, is quite cheeky and malleable. It readily lends itself to slick turns of phrase that can be innocently funny or deeply cutting. Despite seniority and respect being crucial in our culture, we are very adept at using clever words to provoke fistfights or reduce people to tears, all while maintaining a veneer of false innocence.
As I think about it, I’m sure that this feature is not exclusive to my indigenous tongue. Language is the foundation on which reality is built, and in the right (or wrong) hands, it can be used to validate or undermine people’s experiences, identities and sense of self. In English (which can be, in my opinion, quite utilitarian and ugly), there are many metaphors for coming into one’s own that are connected to language: for example, "finding your voice", "claiming your truth", "telling your story" all allude to the power inherent in being able to control one’s narrative.
Language is a tool of power, and a close look at it can expose many of the unspoken forces that shape our lives. Who gets to name things? Which ideas, groups, or behaviours are identified using language that defines them as undesirable? Are there seemingly benign words that carry strong negative connotations? How did those negative connotations become so strongly correlated to those words? How do we use language to reinforce the lines between who is valued and who is not in our societies? Is it possible to reclaim historically dehumanising language? Who has the power to control language, and what are the limits of that power?
As a politically conscious writer (and reader), I think there is immense value in active investigations of language. When we think about the impact of words in ways that we might not ordinarily do, we open ourselves up to new perspectives about who has the power to shape reality. Some of us live in contexts where "political correctness" now has negative undertones. This makes it seem as though thinking through the work that language does in society is at best unproductive, at worst an infringement of the rights of some. Still, words mean things, and, in many cases, they are more powerful than sticks or stones.
At The Correspondent, we’re constantly asking ourselves how can we be more constructive in our journalism? How can we give our readers the tools to change things, in their own small or large ways, in relation to the subjects we write about? We want to provoke our members to think but also to take meaningful action. With my beat, I have struggled somewhat with finding the "constructive" element, knowing that while I am often able to get people to think differently about issues, I’m not always able to inspire action.
This is why I’m working on a fun little project that I’m calling (for now) The Glossary of Othering Words. This won’t be a compilation of words that we can’t use; rather, it will be an invitation to think about the work that some of these words do in the world, in order to help us decide on their value as "just words".
The glossary will be published in the coming weeks, so in the meantime I would like to invite members to contribute words and concepts from their local contexts. I think we will all benefit from seeing how (discriminatory) language patterns converge or differ around the world, and we can collaboratively learn new ways of framing our ideas about people.
Please feel free to share this newsletter, send in your comments either in the contribution section or as an email to me, and point me in the direction of similar work that you think I’d find useful for the glossary. I look forward to hearing from you!
Till next time,