Loaded Words

Kamakshi Balasubramanian

The other day, when we were talking about how Indians can be racist and be very unwelcoming to Africans, a friend got upset that he was being “tarred with the same brush” along with those wanting in sensitivity. He didn’t realize that he was using an epithet that has jarring racist overtones, even as he was defending himself as a non-racist person.

That set me thinking about the way we use language by reflex, especially when we use clichés and idiomatic phrases. Have you heard the use of “lame” these days? Slang has extended the use of the adjective “lame” (most likely an expansion of the phrase “lame excuse”) to mean anything from lackluster to plain stupid. Youngsters call each other “lame” as if the word means nothing other than the light-hearted ribbing they intend. We talk about advice falling on “deaf ears”, and how someone is “blind” to faults, never stopping to imagine why we say “deaf” and “blind”. People calmly say that something is “dumb” or someone is a “retard” with such casual freedom that I wonder whether these speakers have ever used those words in their primary meaning.

Is demanding this sort of attention to language use unrealistic? I don’t think so, because when we use such slang terms and idiomatic expressions in English, which, for many of us, is not our natural language of emotional expression, we aren’t completely familiar with the context in which such usage could be justified. A writer might put abusive language in the mouth of a character in a story, for example, to convey that character’s level of awareness or sensitivity. But would that writer use that same expression in day-to-day conversation? I doubt it.

Using language by reflex, and not being conscious of what is slang, is really quite normal and natural for most of us. Still, when we use language to convey our strong feeling for something in writing, even in a brief remark on one’s Facebook page, it is worth it to pause before making our statement public. That way, we have the opportunity to consider the power of the words we have used, because when we write with feeling, we want to say something with power and punch. We want to be witty or venomous, we want to be succinct and sharp, when we write to show the value of our thought.

Putting a little bit of discernment and discipline when we write might sensitize us to words – in particular words in a language we don’t “feel” and yet justly claim near-native fluency – that can have a nice, knock-on effect on our awareness of the words we use in speech.

After all, we have exchanged “senior” in place of “old”, “chairperson” for “chairman” and so on. We could be thoughtful and quit using loaded words (with their capacity to cause hurt) that denote a person’s race, however obliquely, and words that describe individual physical abilities caused by medical conditions. Refinement in speech can only improve our refinement in thought.

The author is an educator and writer with significant experience teaching at secondary and tertiary levels. She can be reached at papukamakshi@gmail.com.