remember being in first or second grade and feeling angry upon being introduced to the word “beard.” Why did it sound like that? Wasn’t it just “heard” with a “b” instead of an “h”? And if so, why isn’t it pronounced “bird”? This was the first of many classroom skirmishes with the English language encountered throughout my early schooling. I found the word “once” to be a cruel practical joke the first time I saw it written down. There was the mysterious “n” that had stowed away in, what to fourth-grade ears, was unimpeachably the word “goverment” (not, government). At one point, I wanted to speak with the manager about this whole “-ough” issue, so befuddled was I as to how this gang of four letters could be so routinely bullied by the letter in front of them; if they’d just held their ground we’d all be spared the caprice of cough, tough, though, through and bough.
In sixth grade, Mrs. Saunders decided I was ready to learn about numbers that were “less than zero.” Really, Mrs. Saunders. Did you say less than zero!?! Go sell crazy somewhere else. She called these magical sea monkeys “negative numbers.” Okay. So far, so good. Then, in a rare miss, she offered the following illustration: Let’s say someone lost five pounds. We would represent that with the number “negative five.” Oh, Mrs. Saunders. You had me… you had me… you lost me. See, in my metabolically challenged family (as I wasted no time explaining), we’d been through this hypothetical “let’s say someone lost five pounds” scenario before. And let me tell you, whenever someone lost five pounds in our house, it was always—as in without exception—positive. The prosecution rests.
Over the years, I’d like to think my relationship to words and language has matured—somewhat. I continue to eye the ridiculous middle “c” in Connecticut with contempt, and I remain convinced that we’re all either misspelling or mispronouncing “Wednesday” and “iron.” I’m not certain which, but I know in my bones we’re doing something wrong there.
Still, words have long been and remain a powerful force in my life. I won’t lie. To say this out loud makes me feel more than a little self-conscious. People believe in things like God, love, family, friendship or justice, not in words.
The thing is, I do. The kind of clarity many people find in religion, I find in words. The sense of agency some people derive from justice, the comfort they seek from loved ones, the release they get from laughter? Words. Words. Words.
This is not to say things like spirituality, tradition, ritual and home aren’t important to me. Of course they are. But I am who I am, in large part, because of my relationship with language. If there’s anything remarkable about this it’s how unremarkable it is. I’m not multilingual. I don’t earn my living as a writer or a public speaker. I’m an academic. A teacher. A textual critic when you get right down to it. And as such, I tend to greet a lot of the narratives that help people make sense of “reality” with what, on good days at least, is a productive skepticism, and on days that aren’t so good, a far less productive cynicism.
I think it’s precisely because there is so much at stake in how people understand what’s “real” and “right” and “normal” that I take words so seriously. I learned the word “lesbian” when my mother came out to my sister and me. I was 9. By the time I was 10, I began to pick up on the venom in certain people’s voices when they said things like, “your mom’s friend.” Looking back, it was the sound of these generally harmless words being infused with a close-minded moral opprobrium that was probably my first lesson in the power of words to carry a meaning below their surface.
That words so easily convey something other than what they ostensibly mean is a quality that I find, perhaps paradoxically, at once empowering and dangerous. The appeal of plain speaking is hard to deny, but we would do well to remember that words and phrases have histories, some of which offer lessons about how power and powerlessness can be embedded into our language. I think of this whenever I hear phrases like “common sense,” “rule of thumb” or “grandfathered in.”
Often words with the shortest histories prove especially telling about who we are as a culture at a given moment. A quick glance at the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2009 list of new words, for instance, reveals that young people and technology are shaping our culture at the most basic and profound level—its language: muggle, gaydar, hashtag, sexting, and, of course, the 2009 New Word of the Year, unfriend.
In the end, what I admire and respect about words is that they don’t have to be long or hard to pronounce in order to be powerful. After all, some pretty small words have had some pretty big impact:
I have a dream.
Tear down this wall.
Yes, we can.
And some pretty small words can change or save a life:
Help me. Stop. Run. Duck.
How are you? I miss you.
I love you.
It’s a girl.
Whether they’re big or small, familiar or alien, when words get together you have to treat them with care and purpose. For it’s then that they become things like phrases, utterances and sentences. And those sentences? Well, they can easily become ideas. And once in a while, if they’re good enough, those ideas become beliefs.