Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Words and their Usage

"Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" -Arnold Jackson, "Diff'rent Strokes"

"Words, words, words/I'm so sick of words!" -Eliza Doolittle, "My Fair Lady"

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." -Martin Luther King, Jr. (correct me if I'm wrong)

So, the last week has been me bouncing between studying for finals, wrapping up church choir, and counseling my guy friends on their crushes on straight boys (it ain't gonna happen, guys), I've been having lots of thoughts and conversations about words.

Words are extremely powerful things. Remember back in the day when "Oriental" was what you called anyone from Asia? Is that okay now? No.

Nowadays, people can have one of two attitudes towards words; the "it's just a word" school of thought, or the "respect the meaning" school of thought. I, personally, am more "respect the meaning," because this takes into account history, etymology, cultural significance, and is less likely to harm.

So, for this reason, I'd like to break down several words which I have argued about in the last few days, because their usage just really gets under my skin and bothers me.

1.) ILLEGAL (as in "Damn illegals stealin' our jobs!")

This one's gotten a fair amount of use lately, what with Arizona's apparent mass insanity regarding illegal immigrants/legal immigrants/kids of immigrants/people who look like immigrants. Just a few minutes ago, I responded to a comment on a post on's US Poverty blog, because the commentor was using the word "illegal" to describe the people. As in, just "illegal". Not illegal immigrant. Just "illegal".

I think my response says it all: "I take offense at your refering to these people as 'illegals'. This reduces their whole identity to the fact that they bypassed our convoluted, expensive and backwards immigration system. It overlooks their hopes, dreams, woes and history. They are more than illegal immigrants. They are people, like you and me."

2.) FAG

This is a really hot issue. Can only gays say it to each other, can people use it in the context of "fag hag" (a girl with many gay male friends... a.k.a. me), etc.? Personally, I think no one should use it. Why? Because the original definition referred to wood that burned very quickly.

Note that gays used to be burned at the stake.

Now, even if people today don't use this word this way, it's still wrong. The origin of the current usage is pretty clear when you see the connection, and it's simply a dehumanizing term like "illegal". It reduces a person's identity to simply their sexual orientation, nothing else, and that's just not okay.

3.) "That's so gay!"

Ugh. Aside from making no sense (That essay test was homosexual? No wonder you lost points for word choice!), it sends the message that being gay is stupid, awful or otherwise negative, which it isn't. There's better words out there to express how nasty something is, without resorting to using words related to a part of a person's identity.

To conclude...

People, think about what you say. With few exceptions, there's no such thing as "just a word". Monitor your speech and make sure that what you're saying lifts others up instead of bringing them down.

Food for thought. Eat and enjoy. :)

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