Thursday, 1 June 2017

Words Matter

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." - Mark Twain

We all know the words we use to describe the world around us matter, but sometimes we don't understand how much they can matter.  We don't realize how our choices can actually change our perceptions and sometimes we don't realize that we are causing harm with our choices.

Authors have a chance to expose readers to different words and descriptions, giving them a chance to expand their vocabularies.  I've been reading Tanya Huff's An Ancient Peace, which uses the gender neutral pronouns xi and xir.  Xi is the equivalent of he/she/it and xir is the equivalent of his/her/it's.  She didn't go into big explanations about them, just used them in a natural way as part of the dialogue and descriptions.  By providing a model, she's made it easier for me (and other readers) to use them in a natural way as well.  

The same strategy can be used for other descriptive terms as well.  As I was editing my latest book, Inquisition, my line editor pointed out a spot where I had described someone's skin as the colour of fresh bread.  She explained that describing a racial group using food terminology can be considered offensive for two reasons: first, it equates the person with something consumable (raising links to slavery and implying disposability) and second, the foods most commonly used for such descriptions (coffee, sugar, chocolate, etc.) actually have links with the slave trade and plantations.  Obviously, it wasn't my intention to be offensive, so I changed the description.  Since then, I've become aware of how pervasive food-descriptions are and how there is a growing pool of non-food-descriptions.  As these become more common, then the potentially hurtful options will fade out.

Some people might argue that the links are too tenuous and that readers/listeners are being too sensitive.  However, there is strong evidence that language choices have a powerful subconscious impact in how we see the world.  A study was done on how people viewed their weddings.  We all know that major events rarely go smoothly, but what they found was that as people repeated the stories of their weddings over and over, their perception of the event shifted to match the story.  At first, people had a mixture of feelings about the event, some frustration, some happiness, some embarrassment.  But as they kept repeating the story about their feuding relatives, or mismatched napkins, or bug in the salad (that one's from my own wedding), the way they told the story changed their feelings.  If they felt the day was "ruined" then the happiness was overshadowed and the whole thing became a catastrophe.  Those who shared the story as a joke minimized their hurt.  But it wasn't just how people told their own stories, it was also about how other people told the story.  If it was presented as a catastrophe, even if the couple tried to make it into a joke, they were less successful.  

That's why I feel it's important to make the effort to avoid harmful language or dismissive language as well as including positive or self-chosen language.  It's a way to help improve the world, one syllable at a time.

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