I’m surprised at what people don’t notice when privilege accustoms them to their environment, and what they therefore don’t know. One of the things that falls prey to this accustomedness is our words.
Words placehold images, experiences and ideas that may differ between the speaker and the hearer. These trigger immediate emotions. Therefore, words can seriously implicate your audience, especially when they’re un-literal: that image, experience, or idea is still triggered. We can fall prey to our accustomedness to our own reality or our ignorance of other’s. Understanding what words are and that they have power is a call to arms for our awareness and discretion when conversing. At Princeton, our overlapping realities make words often powerful, likely beautiful and sometimes dangerous.
Words are words to us? To me, they are memoir. I have neurotic parents and a particularly parental pair of sisters who insist(ed) by various intimidations—silence, the pulling of ears, the occasional sitting-ons—on a correct grammar. I’ve written in a journal about the sudden uprush of joy upon reading a good Merriam-Webster synonym discussion. For a time I retreated into literature to understand my otherness and the aloneness therein, but words introduced me to a community—Baldwin, Whitman, Potok—who spoke of theirs. I expanded my vocabulary to convey and to emphasize my “likeness” in a majority white neighborhood and school, all in a rapidly gentrifying city. People are always writing different forms of memoir—portrait, ecological, thematic, vocational/occupational. Why not lingual? I bet I could assemble by close study of my lexicon, verbal and written, my memoir.
Or yours. Just because you might not ever have thought about the words you use doesn’t mean they don’t mean anything. They mean something within the context of your life. They say something about the environments to which you’re exposed and those to which you expose yourself. Your lexicon maps your reality.
Here’s an example: I took a survey that purported it could guess where I was from based on the colloquialisms with which I was familiar. It guessed that I was from Boston, MA, Arlington, VA, or Pembroke Pines, FL. I was raiseda in Cambridge (near Boston) for the first six years of my life on MIT’s campus, then moved to DC. Close enough. My vocabulary encompasses my parent’s colloquialisms, what they picked up and left behind from Atlanta, Philadelphia and Cambridge. It exposed to me how family-centric my socio-linguistic life is—my family and I are New Englanders in language (and at heart), even if we don’t or won’t admit it. What if the survey had guessed wrong: you might be foreign, diasporic, rural, urban, suburban, from a small, poorly represented town (village?, province?, etc?)? This is, anyway, just a geographic subsection of who you are linguistically. The whole picture speaks volumes. What I want to and hope I have made clear is that language is interesting, cool, intimate. It deserves your attention.
What are our words to others? By nature, words are discursive. Words are for others. But on Princeton’s campus, where there are several overlapping lingual realities, I hear people speaking in hyperbole constantly. I hear people speaking words about realities with which they are not acquainted: speaking literally about which they cannot be literal—words that, as Faulkner says, “fill a lack.”
The destruction of the word “literal” can serve as contrast. Literal was abused to such a degree that its definition in several dictionaries now includes a non-literal definition. The very fact that literalness is announced (“literally, I’m going to die you guys”) perverts the basic assumption that our words are literal. Its second definition betrays our pervasive misunderstanding of literalness.
Why is that important? Recently, a friend commented on a period in which, she said, she’d been “kind of depressed.” I cannot, when hearing the word, avoid the immediate emotions. One of my sisters suffers from stubborn depression, the consequences of which are significant. Her symptoms are personal: unpredictable phone calls that consist of weeping and listening, long periods of listlessness, emotionlessness, cutting attacks that devolve into crying and things which I won’t mention. That is the reality one triggers with the word “depression:” the images and remembrances overlay. I’m not angry about it. Those triggered emotions enable me to better empathize. But my friend was not being literal: she retreated from her choice of words. It was boredom, some loneliness. She goes on, but my mind is elsewhere: my thoughts seethe bitterly; I have lost peace of mind in the period between phone calls. There is pain in my stomach.
Why do we hang words on other’s consciousness as if they have no weight? When you are literal you speak out of your known reality and/or to a reality. Why can’t we, when expressing our realities, be careful to choose the words which will both make our point clearest to our hearers and sensitive to their realities? What I’m sharing is not just a personal, isolated experience and it is not limited to the abuse of mental illness terminology. Words like ghetto, rape and retarded are freighted, and in our choice to use them when not being literal we trigger for a lot of people, daily, realities painful to recall. This is true of any freighted word. Words like bitch, slut and whore (to pick a few) have histories that extend as far and further back than the dichotomization of women in the Bible with Mary and Mary Magdalene. Be sure: That is not, and I cannot, stitch these word’s entire histories. But if one cannot account for all meanings of a potentially triggering word, past and present, why use it?
Let’s reintroduce the concept of literalness. Let’s make literalness an assumption of our everyday language. It would make all of us, I think, so much easier to understand, to be understood, to be less alone. We want beautiful memoirs.