Words Can Create Warmth or Freeze Out a Listener

By repeating words they become reality. Or do they?
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen “black” skin – very dark maybe, but not black.

You’re in your car, stuck in a snowdrift in the middle of a blizzard. The engine has quit and the heat is gone, replaced by the cold of outer space – the very void of nothingness. Your head knows that freezing cold is not encouragement to life.

Your yoga training tells you that breathing creates warmth and strength. You begin to breathe deeply, covering your face with your hands so you can retain the heat expelled in your breath. You begin a mantra: “I feel warm. My warmth keeps me alive. I feel warm. My body is filling with warmth.” And you repeat it to the rhythm of your breath. Soon you feel the warmth of yourself, the life of you, and you believe in the warmth – and continue to breathe.

By repeating words they become reality. Or do they?

If we look east to the political mien of the other Washington, or the marketing aura of New York, the power of words seems evident. Repeat what you want people to believe and it doesn’t take long before it happens. War is good. You need an expensive car. You can have anything in the world with a piece of plastic. You must be beautiful to be happy (you must accept my definition of beauty). Happiness is available in this pill. Trust me; I have the answer. (I just noticed that there’s a difference between that last compound sentence and this one: Trust me, I have the answer. Pay attention to punctuation.)

The world is becoming aware of sensitive words – the words that come out of our mouths one way, but could land on ears in another way. “You look good for your age.” “Would you girls like to order another drink?” “Disabled people seldom attend movies.” “Of course you’re from Africa, you’re black.” On first reading, these words may seem innocent. But take another look.

“You look good for your age.” What does my age look like? And why would someone offer a comment about my ability to stay alive. Tell me I look well; tell me I look beautiful; tell me I look happy. But leave my age out of it!

“Would you girls like to order another drink?” If a woman is old enough to drink, she’s old enough to be addressed as a woman. And don’t welsh by calling her a “lady.” When a girl reaches puberty, usually 13 or 14, it’s time to refer to her as a woman – more aptly a “young woman.” (Of course it’s a different matter if these “girls” were drinking milkshakes and talking about their new teacher in fourth grade.) Think about why it is difficult for some men to call their gender opposite “woman.”

“Disabled people seldom attend movies.” First of all, it is important to acknowledge someone as a person, possibly one with a certain condition, rather than an adjectived person. That is, better to use words such as “people who are disabled, a man who is blind, a woman who has a hearing deficiency,” rather than “disabled people, blind man, deaf woman.” We are all people first, people with problems, some of which may go away; the connotation with the “adjectived person” sends a negative message. Secondly, many people who are disabled go out a lot, to movies, restaurants, parks, and sports events. Haven’t you noticed how smart business people make their sites available to everyone!

“Of course you’re from Africa, you’re black.” The fallacy of this statement is assuming that Africa equates with dark skin. Not everyone from Africa has dark skin. And everyone with dark skin is not from Africa, at least not recently. If you want to get scientific and go way back, waaay back, you’ll discover that it is likely we all came from Africa. One other thing, I’m finding it very difficult to use the words black and white when referring to skin color. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen “black” skin – very dark maybe, but not black. Nor have I seen white skin; mine is peachy most of the time. (Furthermore, I don’t understand how people can devalue dark skin while spending big bucks on tanning parlors.) One thing more to think about: why is it necessary to know where people’s grandparents or great-grands come from?

Words are powerful – they can maintain the warmth of life or they can freeze out your best friend. You may want to think twice when offering words that could be taken “the wrong way.” It isn’t the meaning of words that people hear – it’s the words.

For more discussion of sensitive words, the ones that divide Us and Them, read Just Words – The Us and Them Thing, now available from bookstores or this Web site.

©Copyright 2005 Val Dumond

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About Val Dumond

VAL DUMOND is a writer who is enamored with words and putting them together to tell stories. Trained as a journalist, she also managed an advertising agency and public relations business. She has taught writing classes for many years and now focuses on her own writing, editing for other writers, and helping writers publish their books. She owns Muddy Puddle Press, where most of her books are published. Her favorite writing theme is historical fiction: She has done what-ifs for Klondike Kate — Queen of the Yukon, and the unlucky pilot who in 1933 tried and failed to be the first to fly solo across the Pacific. She also did a what-if about the status of women at a bank where she once was overworked and underpaid. (Kate received a new love interest at the age of 70; the pilot received a second chance at his heart's desire 50 years later; and the women of the bank rebelled enough to improve their wages and place women on the Board of Directors.) See: SUGAR, SPICE, AND STONE; WHEN ROOSTERS FLY; and A LITTLE REBELLION…. But Val's grammar books are the ones that draw attention. Her latest, AMERICAN-ENGLISH—The Official Guide (written for writers), is a culmination of five other books about language she has written. This new book urges writers to develop their own writing style by creating their own Style Manual, composed of preferences among the many choices that American-English provides. In it, she uses examples of uses for the various parts of language and punctuation, sets aside a section that's full of writing tips, includes a glossary and index for easy access to language solutions.
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