Words Matter (More Than You Think)

Your mouth is poison; your mouth is wine.
–The Civil Wars

This morning, while reading some of the pushback I received from last night’s post, I realized I may have been given to extremism. So I wanted to clarify my point. Here goes: Words matter.

Words Matter
Photo credit: Angie Garrett

Did you know the words you say have an effect on other people? Of course you did. So why do we still ignore that reality when we open our mouths?

It doesn’t matter that you “didn’t mean it” or that you were “just joking.” Sometimes, words just hurt. And we who use them have a responsibility to do so with an awareness of the impact they may have.

Every day, I learned this lesson when I carelessly say something to a friend — or worse, my spouse — that cuts the other person deep. Without realizing it, I can sometimes be brash and hurtful. Fortunately, my wife is showing me how I am responsible not only for my intentions but also for other people’s perceptions of me.

Of course, you can’t completely control other people’s reactions, but you can be aware of how your language affects others.

In light of this, I want to make a few points about words:

  1. I am not a prude. I am a fan of words. I love words. I can even appreciate a well-placed expletive to make a point. What I don’t like is when people are careless with words.
  2. This is not about political correctness (see Johnny Knoxville’s take on the “R-word” and political correctness in this video). It’s about respect.
  3. Context is important. There are occasions in which certain words are not offensive. If the veterinarian calls my dog a “b*tch“, I’m not going to gasp with shock and disdain. Even at appropriate tames, a well-placed curse word can have an effect.
  4. There are correct and incorrect ways to use any word. You should know what they are; choose wisely before opening your mouth or before writing that next ire-filled email.
  5. Habits matter. If I’m using a word privately, it may come out unintentionally in public settings. So there are some words that I just don’t use. For me, this is a matter of discipline and self-control.
  6. Laziness with words is an epidemic. The fact that certain offensive words are so widespread in our culture reveals how tragically unoriginal we are. We could be a lot more creative in our communication, if we tried.

As a writer, this issue of using words is dear to me. Words are beautiful tools, but when improperly wielded, they can be dangerous weapons. Words do indeed matter. Let’s take the time to learn to use them well.

Do words matter to you? Why or why? Share in the comments.

29 thoughts on “Words Matter (More Than You Think)

      1. Josh- i am actually writing a book that expounds on this comment. it’s called The Pilgrims Diary of Stolen Words and will hopefully be available in digital form this spring.

  1. Words indeed do matter, Jeff.

    What gets me about the people who blowback against people wanting to stop the use of the r-word is that in every case I’ve seen for a “valid use” of the word there are synonyms that could easily be used as a substitute.

    If people really wanted to do it, they could use an alternative word. They just choose not to do it. That’s their right, of course, just as it’s my right to look at them and realize they would rather use a word that many use to degrade my son than take the two seconds to come up with an alternative word.

    You weren’t given to extremism in your post. You were taking the firm stand necessary to make people realize the harm done by the r-word. As with other words that are used to insult others that have “valid” meanings, people will continue to use them.

  2. This will be my last comment on the topic. Great topic to discuss but it could go on forever.

    I spent a number of years studying language from a psychological and philosophical point of view both in formal and informal settings. One of my lectures was in fact on pejorative terms, the example we discussed was ‘gay’. In case you don’t know gay used to mean ‘happy’, then became ‘homo-sexual’ and is now everything from stupid, silly to effeminate.

    But my opinion is that people will always insult each other, whether it’s good-natured ribbing or with malicious intent. It would be nice if we were all nice to 24/7 and never sarcastic or mean, but it’s not going to happen.

    I guarantee that in a couple of years kids in the play-ground will be calling each other ‘developmentally challenged’. Is it nice or right? No but it just goes to show that banning words doesn’t change a thing. It’s purely symbolic.

    What next? Ban ideas? Ban books?

    1. Neill, I understand the logic under which you’re trying to justify your using the word. However, claiming that eventually kids might be using the term “developmentally challenged” isn’t a valid reason to say we should stop using that word. That’s akin to saying that should continue to use the n-word because eventually they’ll call themselves “black” and that will be a negative term. (And yes, some folks consider using “black” instead of “African American” to be insulting.)

      It’s a huge leap, and really a straw man, to try and compare this to banning ideas or books. There’s no denying the word is used as a way to insult and degrade other human beings. Asking people to stop using that word because of the way it’s being used by the majority of people is not political correctness nor is it censorship. It’s asking people to think about others instead of themselves for a minute and chose a different word that doesn’t have the negative connotation that is the most common usage today.

      Just because some people choose to be mean doesn’t mean we should stop asking people not to be that way.

    2. I’ve appreciated your contribution to this discussion, Neill, and I agree that sensitivity cannot lead to censorship. I also think we should stop excusing lewd speech and behavior, as well, especially when it hurts so many people.

  3. You’re absolutely right, Jeff. I’ve been guilty of the same kind of behavior in the past. I grew up in an environment that equated the word “fag” with the word “idiot.” And that’s how we spoke. Whether we knew it or not, our language dictated how we thought as well.

    Our intentions and our personal meaning for any word aren’t nearly as important as the way they land on those who hear them.

    The tongue is a dangerous thing. – James 3:3-12

  4. Seems to me that it all comes down to loving well.

    Folks who choose to use the r-word tend not to have friends with developmental delays. Folks who use the n-word tend not to have friends who are black. Folks who use the word ‘fag’ tend not to have friends who are gay/lesbian.

    Words are tools. If you’re wondering if a word is appropriate, ask yourself if it helps you to love other better. I think that will answer the question.

  5. I have a cousin who has Downs Syndrome. He was born when I was 12. Before then, I don’t recall using the r-word very frequently, but I do recall how disgusting it felt the first time I said it after Josh was born.

    The truth is, when we call some retarded or gay or jew…what we are meaning is you are are dumb, stupid, your value was just lessened by what you said or did or forgot to do or whatever. And by using the r-word or g-word or j-word, we are making the statement (intentionally or not) that someone who is actually gay, developmentally challenged, or jewish is a lesser human being. Their value is less than ours. That is what we are implying, whether we intend to or not.

    And, regardless of his Downs, Josh is not a lesser person. He is amazing. He is smart and funny and passionate. And God created Him with purpose. So the value of Josh is the same as the value of the President of the United States, or Steve Jobs, or Albert Pujols. Every person, gay, straight, handicapped, athletic, jewish, american…was made in the image of God. God determines our value. He determined it from His first breath (anyone know when that was? I didn’t think so.) And He says each person is valuable.

    One of the most important things I learned as a communication major in college is that communication is not what is said. Communication is more about what is heard. It’s important to remember as we speak. Regardless of what words I used or what I meant, what was communicated may be something totally different. It may be something I NEVER would purposefully communicate.

    Thank you, Jeff. This was a good reminder for me. Aside from the word in question, I needed to be reminded that I should be intentionally speaking life over others.

  6. It seems your point is really about awareness. Some people seem to be so caught up in themselves and what they are doing or what they are wanting to say that they neglect the fact that everything (especially their words) communicate something… the thing they are communicating may or may not be what is being said, yet they are totally unaware and carry on oblivious in the often destructive way of life!!

  7. OK, bro. I need to be careful here, because I might fall into the trap of suggesting that the next good thing is always the next best thing. Kinda like going to church camps. Every year is the best year. Get my drift?

    Here’s my point. I’ve become a big fan of your stuff. Your a daily read. But I have to say that this is my favorite post of yours. Hands down, my favorite.

    Now… I shall wait until tomorrow, in hopes that that post will be my next new favorite post. 😉 See, I’ve already fallen into the trap I was trying to suggest I would avoid in the first paragraph. Hah.

  8. I know nobody will believe me with what follows, but I’m not usually the kind of guy to promote my own work on other people’s blogs. Having said that, I will interject a link to a sermon I gave on Proverbs 18 just a few months back that I feel like really gets to the heart of this topic. https://eastgatefellowship.net/proverbs.htm I feel like I stated want I want to state there more adequately than I would by trying to present it here (and more concisely since the link is far shorter than the words it contains) This is a great post as per your norm, Jeff. Thanks so much for doing what you do; you’re an invaluable resource and I haven’t taken you for granted since discovering you (or more precisely, being discovered by you) last week.

  9. If you have ever wiped the tears of a child with “different-abilities” who has just been called a name you would realize that a little effort to choose kinder words makes a big difference. As a former Special Education Teacher, too much of my day was spent trying to repair and undo damage that was done by thoughtless or uncaring schoolmates and by many of the grown ups in these children’s lives as well.

    Children with “different-abilities” in general exude enormous amounts of time and energy trying to keep up with children of so called “normal-abilities” so they don’t get ignored and/or marginalized. After working so hard to perhaps arrive at the same place at the same time as kids with “normal-abilities” then to be met with a slur or thoughtless label could be very demoralizing for them to say the least.

    Does it really take that much more time or energy out of one’s day to perhaps listen for a moment first, assess the situation a little and then speak? I know from personal experience that using “People First Language” made a measurable positive difference in my interactions with others in all walks of life.

  10. HI Jeff.  I’m like you in that I like words a lot if they are used properly.  I also agree that laziness is not only an epidemic with usage but also using 30 cheap words if they would just use one good one and quit the rambling.  Thanks

  11. HI Jeff.  I’m like you in that I like words a lot if they are used properly.  I also agree that laziness is not only an epidemic with usage but also using 30 cheap words if they would just use one good one and quit the rambling.  Thanks

  12. Something I always do when I write is check verbs and sport more specific verbs in my prose.

  13. Since when did everyone become a pussy? Only you can let those words affect you. Grow up, life is too short to whine about hurt feelings. This kind of crap is why our country is so pathetic right now.

    1. AMEN! Words don’t matter actions do. Words can be interpreted differently by different people since they are many times received and understood through the prism of an individuals understanding which many times is unique. How can I as a sender of a message be responsible for how they are received – ridiculous!

Comments are closed.