Choose your words carefully

The first piece of education I remember receiving was in Year One, at Our Lady Queen of Peace Primary School in Greystanes, Western Sydney. I would have been six. Mrs Szukalski – a tall, blonde woman in her early twenties, coincidentally (or not) my first crush that wasn’t fictional – told the class that for homework we had to write a one-page story about dinosaurs. My story was four pages long, and probably included dragons and space ships. I was an early reader, an inquisitive, imaginative child, and that creative task fused everything into a clarity of purpose. I became hooked on the power of words.

Me before and after being exposed to words. Consider yourself warned. (2nd pic. Alison Martin)
Me, before and after being exposed to words. Consider yourself warned. (2nd pic. Alison Martin)

Language is power – beautiful and dangerous. It is by no accident that John’s Gospel begins ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.’ The Church moved God beyond the ‘Creator’ of our physical world and gave ‘Him’ dominion over our inner selves, laying claim to our tools of communication and self-expression.

Irrespective of the amount of fiction in the Bible, or for that matter any religious text filled with stories of apparently real supernatural beings, we would be foolish to forget or ignore the power of words. Words can encourage us to be both terrible and fabulous. Used correctly they can tap into our hopes and fears. To those kept blind to or choose not to see meaning, words can sometimes, for good or ill, create desires people never knew they had. Marketers understand this, as do politicians – Just Do It. Think Different. The Real Thing. It’s Time. Yes We Can. Stop the Boats.

Language is neutral. The people who use it are not.

Faced with what language can do, it becomes incumbent on those of us who want to create a world based on social equality and environmental stability, with empowered communities and people working together toward common goals, to raise the veil of mystery over how language works so that fewer people become deceived by cheap parlour tricks.

One thing we can do is use metaphors better. Like similes and other figurative language, metaphors can help people relate to or grasp ideas and concepts more clearly, particularly where those things are new or outside a person’s experience. The term ‘glass ceiling’, for example, refers to the societal barriers which women, and also minorities, face in terms of employment. The effectiveness of this metaphor comes when we dig into the image a little bit deeper. This type of barrier is unseen, yet impenetrable. With effort though, it can be smashed.

A study done by Stanford psychologists Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky highlights how choosing the right metaphor to talk about a particular issue can influence how people think about it. Participants in the study were asked to read a short passage detailing crime rates in a fictitious city. Outside the control group the participants were given identical statements except for one initial sentence, a metaphor. One group read crime is a beast, the other group crime is a virus ravaging the city. They were then asked how this problem should be dealt with.

All of the participants in the study insisted afterwards their decision had been based on the facts. However, 71 per cent of people who had been primed to think of crime as an opponent or monster favoured more punitive measures to deal with it. This rate dropped to 54 per cent for participants primed to think of crime in terms of a biological condition, more of this group opted for preventative solutions.

For an explanation of the different weights to the responses, we could take a look at the language many politicians and media commentators use, like to fight crime and the war on drugs, which have become almost the staple linguistic reference point for the issue. It’s not just right wing conservatives who use this language, progressives use it too – when we’re lazy or haven’t thought through the effects of our language choices. And, as political communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio writes ‘in the absence of such examination, premises that we never challenge become and remain accepted truths.’

One way progressives can choose our words more carefully is by reducing our use of horizontal divide language to refer to social inequality; for example the gap between the rich and the poor. Talking about divides in this way is descriptive, but neutral. It doesn’t tell us how this distance was created (natural? human-made?) whether the divide is a good thing, and what might be done for the space between the two groups to be closed. Also, as Shenker-Osorio says ‘“Gap” isn’t a stirring call to action, it’s a clothing store.’

Other variations on the divide theme, like chasm or gulf,imply an uncrossable distance between the rich and the poor, which is clearly self-defeating in terms of the outcomes we are trying to achieve. When talking about inequality, perhaps we’d be better off focussing on language evoking ideas of barriers or imbalance, both of which have a degree of agency (the cause), judgement and potential solutions.

Like many other fields of study, words and language are an unending treasure trove of useful and interesting things to discover. I always try to start with myself and the words I use and move out from there. My favourite set of technical ‘Writer’s Rules’ come from George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short word will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

The sixth rule, which people sometimes leave off the list, is my favourite: ‘Break any of these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous.’ A good reminder that rules are constructed either as guidelines, or in order to impose control, and once we understand a system we should be prepared to smash/evolve/change/tinker with it if we need to.

Originally published in the Winter 2014 edition of GreenMail, the members’ publication of the Greens NSW.

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