Not long ago, I wrote a post in defense of the word weird. In comments, most people agreed with me that weird isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though there was a bit of a push back on the other words I championed: earnest, nice, and namaste).
Not long after that post, I got into a conversation with a friend about the word love. My friend felt that we were diluting the meaning of the word love by throwing it around so much, sometimes “to people we’ve never even met in person.” (As you might guess, he’s not into social media.) I understood what he was saying. Words can be overused to the point of meaninglessness, but I didn’t agree with him on love. I can’t imagine ever hearing (or reading) the words, “I love you” and not feeling the sweet rush of gratitude and connection those words are meant to convey.
In thinking about the disparity of our reactions – my inner squee, and his eye-roll – I’m struck by how powerful and fraught language can be when our goal is to be understood.
Though we all like to throw them around whenever they prove our point, the truth is dictionary definitions only get at part of what a word means. There is nothing negative or even judgmental in the definition of weird, nothing insincere or petty in the definition of love. Our reactions to words are made of far more complicated stuff than their dictionary definitions.
We react to how the words are used, the tone of the sentence (or voice) that delivers them, and sometimes our very personal histories with the words themselves. I was once unfollowed on Twitter because I jokingly called someone a wuss. To me, wuss is a word that simply cannot be taken seriously, but it was obviously very serious to him. Even an apology didn’t get me back in his good graces. I’ve been on the other side of that equation too, where people have hurt my feelings with language they didn’t realize I would take seriously.
Recently, a friend posted on Facebook her extreme discomfort with the term motherfucker. She said, “We’re responsible for what we put out there. Words matter, people.”
She’s right. They do and on the one hand, I agree completely. We are responsible for what we put out there and, truly, motherfucker is a strange and, on the face of it, very ugly term. When I read the phrase in my friend’s post, it was like seeing the emperor naked; the word by itself, devoid of context, is patently offensive. There were lots of people jumping in to wholeheartedly agree with her. Lots of “likes.”
I hovered over the “like” button, but didn’t press it.
On my coffee cup right now, in letters written into the shape of a heart, it says, “Write Like A Motherfucker.” It is a reference to my favorite Dear Sugar letter of all time, in which Sugar tells a young, beautiful, talented, relentlessly insecure writer to, in essence: Just write. Of course she delivers that message much more artfully and over many paragraphs as only Sugar can, using examples from her own life, quotes from literary rock stars, a little bit of Latin and, yes, in the most memorable line of her response, the word motherfucker.
I blogged about how that letter affected me. It affected me the same way it affected every writer I knew who read it. It made us want to write. It made us want to give birth to our “second beating hearts,” no matter what happened after that, no matter who thought what we’d written was brilliant and who thought it was shit. Sugar’s letter – her passionate, poetic, profane phrasing – lit me up inside and pushed me to do things on the page I’d never done before.
And yet, when I wrote about it on my own blog, I hesitated to use her words. I thought, “Wait. My mom reads my blog.”
In the end, I trusted my mom to pay attention to my intent, to read what I wrote, feel my determination, and be proud of me… even if I was using language she would never use herself. And maybe that’s what we all need to do.
Whichever end of the exchange we’re on, the wielder of words or the receiver of them, we need to remember how powerful they are. As writers (and speakers and lovers and friends), we need to choose wisely, which doesn’t mean curbing our enthusiasm, dumbing ourselves down, or choosing political correctness over everything else. It means saying what we mean as precisely and as bravely as we can, knowing that not everyone will agree or understand.
And as readers (and listeners and lovers and friends), it means using powers beyond our knee-jerk reactions to get at meanings that are deeper (and far more worthwhile) than dictionary definitions.
And when we don’t like a word, it’s okay to say that too. I actually thought my friend was brave in her Facebook post. If Facebook had an “I admire your willingness to take a stand” button, I’d have pressed that.