For the second time this week, I’ve come across a “campaign” to ban a word. Today, it’s the “Ban Bossy” movement, asking people to stop calling young girls “bossy” when they assert themselves, so we can better encourage girls to be leaders. Earlier this week, it was the campaign to ask people to stop using “the R-word.”
I can heartily get behind not just the idea of cutting the overuse and/or misuse of these words, but with the overall goals of the campaigns themselves. As a woman and the mother of four daughters, I am happy to support encouraging girls in their desires to make a difference in whatever community they’re in, whether it’s a classroom, a school, or a group of some kind. And as the mother of a delightful daughter with Down syndrome, I HEARTILY support the request for people to pledge to stop using the word “retarded.” I have never heard someone use it as a neutral descriptor of someone’s development, which is what it was intended to do: it simply means being slower or stopped in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress. What people always use it to mean is “stupid” or “beneath” or “outrageous.” It’s used as an epithet, as a put-down, a derogatory descriptor. I flinch whenever I hear someone use it in casual conversation.
Some may say that language is constantly evolving and that some of these movements are just about semantics. But words have meaning, whether that meaning is different today than it was one year ago or 50 years ago. They pack a punch. I absolutely adore words. I love their power to express thought and feeling, to communicate what sometimes is difficult to translate from abstract notions in one’s head and heart. Their accurate and precise use can feel like a miracle.
The problem is this: many people do not know their own language sufficiently well to be able to articulate correctly what they want to get across. They get by on a pocketful of vocabulary words when a stuffed backpack would do the job much more effectively. They do not understand that their careless use of that limited pocketful can end up coloring a picture in someone else’s mind that does not match at all the picture that originated in their own. That breakdown in transmission of understanding can create hurt feelings at the very least; it can change actions (not in the intended way); it can change attitudes (not for the better).
Since our language currently has evolved to use the word “retarded” to mean the colloquial “lame!” or “stupid” or “ridiculous,” the cat’s out of the bag now and we can’t force it back in, for the word to go back to meaning just its “neutral,” “unloaded” version. It is now a loaded word and will cause people to cringe. It will continue to insult those who have disabilities and those who care about them. So, yes, it’s time to take that loaded word out of our pocket or backpack and just toss it in the trash.
When it comes to empowering girls, who are growing into future women leaders, capable of contributing a great deal to society, we can stop belittling them with words like “bossy.” We can talk to them using words that express our confidence in their abilities, that don’t compare them negatively with boys, that don’t show some underlying expectation that they are lesser. We can value them as females and acknowledge that there are differences between the sexes but not fall back on easy gender stereotypes. “Bossy” may very well be already a loaded word with too many associations attached that we can no longer un-attach. At the very least, we need to be much more careful of how we employ it and in what situation.
Yes, words matter. They’re the building blocks of how we share our opinions, our feelings, our ideas. We need to choose them wisely and assemble them effectively.