Friday, June 20, 2008

The Power of Words

by Raelene Gorlinsky

I am passionate about the power of words. Words not only educate and inform, they powerfully influence beliefs, emotions, actions. Words can change the world by changing how we see the world. I collect quotes, and among my favorites are:

All words are pegs to hang ideas on. ~ Henry Ward Beecher
Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs. ~ Pearl Strachan
Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. ~ Elie Wiesel

The words we write and speak are indeed the way we define and promote ideas and opinions. Analyze the underlying meaning and the “ulterior motives” of words to determine the stand and beliefs of the author of those words. The most famous and moving speeches are just as powerful when read on paper—because the incredible word phrases do not need the “live presentation”, they influence us just as much when merely ink on paper.

First-generation feminists (did you know we're now said to be in the third generation of the feminist movement?) objected loudly to the generic use of he/him and words like "mankind". Why? Many people claimed the feminists were going overboard in attaching such significance to common, well-understood terms - after all, everyone knew that "mankind" meant all humans of either gender, homo sapiens sapiens. Ah, but - that word subtly and subconsciously does have the power to make 'man' the male more important and primary than the other, non-male half of humankind. Same thing with the continual use of 'he' to represent any generic person.

Yes, it's clunky to always write "he or she", "her or him", "humankind". (And let's not get into the efforts of some to create new words, like 'shim'.) But there are lots of resources available to help you craft non-gender-specific language. I recommend reading Gender Exclusive Language, from Empire State College:

If you are referring to a generic person or group of people, or a role or position that could be either gender (that includes everything except sperm donors and birth-givers), then don't influence your reader toward a specific gender. Remember the power of your words and use that power wisely. Be careful what ideas you let hang from the pegs of your words.


Terry Odell said...

Maybe we could just change the grammar rules about matching singulars or plurals so you could legitimately use "their" when making those generalized statments instead of getting into the his/her conundrum. So "Everyone needs to have their bags outside the door by six am" wouldn't be 'wrong.'

On another note -- why all the attempts to give a single gender for situations where there's a real live person standing in front of you. Frankly, politics notwithstanding, I don't see that 'congressperson' makes sense if one can plainly see it's either a male or female. Likewise, what's wrong with having actors and actresses?

So many foreign languages hook gender to grammar. I remember my German and Latin days. How do they deal with this concept?

Even 'humankind' has MAN in it. As does 'woman'. And what about male and feMALE?

I'd rather people accept that we come in two genders, and keep striving for equality with our without the language behind it.

I'm old enough to remember the big fuss about "Miss" and "Mrs." and the creation of "Ms." As if we don't have all our characters checking that ring finger regardless of name or title.

As someone who's used to getting mail addressed as "Mister" by people who see only my written name (I was invited to pledge a fraternity when I was starting college), I've sort of given up caring about some of the finer points of word choice if the result means we won't be understood.

Barbara Martin said...

This gender basis has gone too far by making people paranoid in how they perceive written words resulting in how they view the world around them.