What Words Are These? Linguistic Precision, and the Search for Better Terms

What Words Are These? Linguistic Precision, and the Search for Better Terms February 15, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. A year ago I was saying goodbye to Canada, about to start my new life in Colombia. I had ever so much to learn: a lot more Spanish, the cadence of life in another culture, new administrivia, job markets, day-to-day dangers, and how to heal from the grief I was still carrying with me. But most importantly, I had to learn what I didn’t know, what I couldn’t have anticipated that I didn’t know. And that has been the most gratifying journey of them all.

When you move in academia, it’s easy to frame your life in its values. On preceding posts, some of have expressed surprise that I found a great deal of rigidity in my PhD-programme experiences, but plenty do; it’s by no means rare to struggle with the classism (and for others, the racism… though I can’t say I felt any safer myself in a system where I knew my peers were experiencing racist pressures) of institutions that proclaim meritocracy but are easiest to move through from a white upper-middle-class background. Plenty find the financial strain brutal. Plenty have to leave because committees are not a good fit.

So I carried within myself quite a few carryover expectations–about worth, about work, about the role of language in thought–that I’ve spent the last year unravelling. Unsurprisingly, too, many of these unravelled assumptions have changed my approach to the nature and purpose of discourse itself.

As a learner of Spanish, for instance, I finally grokked the logic behind students of mine writing structures like “The book, it is about…” In English, we are sticklers for ONE subject, ONE verb, but Spanish–like many languages–is more fluid, and can handle one subject marker, two subject markers, or even three (including in the conjugated verb) with ease. “Redundancy”, as we call this in English, can serve other purposes in other language contexts. And sure, I’ve always been a descriptivist in my approach to language… relishing in the Patois I learned from my neighbours in a West Indies Toronto neighbourhood, and delighting in the different inflectional weight of S-O-V Japanese when I studied it in high school… but only at a distance from English culture, including from post-secondary programmes that emphasized the superior logic of contemporary-academic English, did I truly realized the in-group eliticism of requiring precision on one speaker’s terms in any global conversation.

Also as a second-language learner, I experienced the startling misperception of being seen as angry all the time–something I now warn my students about, because I’ve learned that the stilted tone of a non-native speaker often skews how they’re read by others, and never for the better. On the surface, it makes me laugh to think how many people thought of me as a threat this past year, but when a mostly quiet stranger speaks in what seems a clipped, terse speech if at all… sure, I can see why others would be unsettled. It is a frustrating process, speaking and hearing oneself sound like a child in a second language, and now when a student comes to me in tears from the shame of having failed to communicate the fullness of their intelligence and insight in another language… I realize the necessity, far more essential than correct grammar or syntax or pronunciation, of teaching our shared and abiding humanity. Of letting my students know that they are seen, as people first, as whole microcosms operating with depth and complexity and tremendous vulnerability through that second, foreign tongue.

If I have lived any one truth this past year–and my slice of it has been small, because I was not fleeing persecution when I emigrated into this set of challenges–it is that we are a long way from doing right by the number of trapped microcosms in immigrant communities the world over, and that the path to restoration requires a lot less fixation on linguistic precision as a prerequisite to the sharing of our humanity.

On a broader level, too, this last year I learned to let go of my desire to control the narrative by ceaselessly talking out and categorizing experience for myself. Narrative is, of course, critical to self-perception, and yet it can also lock us out of new pathways, new directions for our stories to grow. I used to tell myself stories all the time to match my feelings of abandonment and disappointment, hurt and shame and failure. You’re not getting X because of Y. You’re not good enough for A because of B. But this past year–in part because so much has been new, and my tongue so coarsely situated in my new primary language–I’ve gained a great deal of experience in cutting myself off at the pass and simply observing, simply allowing new stories to unfold.

It’s from that place of being challenged, then, that I want to offer challenges in turn.

I want to take a look at some of the linguistic terms we might take for granted–and I want us to think about what our rigidity with them might cut us off from, or leave out.

Global Warming

This one is the easiest, safest starting place. When I first started my dissertation, folks would ask why I was studying literary histories of stellar evolution, and I’d default to this example, to explain how looking at histories of linguistic and mythopoetic refinement can help us improve scientific literacy today. Specifically, I’d point out the narrative difference that emerges when we describe extreme planetary conditions through “global warming” (a term that doesn’t, on the surface, encapsulate other extreme meteorological events); “climate change” (a term that doesn’t on the surface seem to relate to the invocation of rising sea levels); and “environmental change” (which does incorporate all).

Now, obviously, “global warming” still strongly reflects what is happening to our planet… but just like my dissertation’s focus on how the theory of stellar evolution sat uneasily within many people’s spiritual cosmologies… we have to remember that a story spreads best when people can see how their personal environment fits within that bigger picture. So sure, keep “global warming” on the backburner… but bring out “environmental change” when dealing with an audience uncertain what to make of all the phenomenon closer to their home. Creating room in our broader stories to incorporate all local environmental data catches less at the reluctant mind.

But oh, that’s the easy one to point out, isn’t it? So let’s try something harder.

Dark/Black vs. Bleak

I started changing my terminology in this regard a few years ago, when confronted with implicit bias studies like those that have illustrated how white persons are more likely to assume a darker-skinned person doesn’t feel pain as deeply, or is larger and more intimidating than a similar-sized white person. I certainly don’t think that do this, but I also didn’t want personal (over)confidence keeping me from doing the necessary work to defend against any such cultural biases.

So especially in my writing practice, but also in my everyday vernacular, I considered the way that English frames positives and negatives, and I decided to make a conscious effort to eliminate my usage of the words “dark” and “black” in places where something sinister is implied. Now, I don’t think I’m perfect at this, by any measure! (“Black humour/comedy” is one usage I still occasionally catch myself tripping into.) And I’m by no means trying to suggest that if you use “dark” as a synonym for evil you’re as good as shooting a young black child on sight “out of self defense”.

But… language is one means by which we reinforce our social contract and sense of everyday reality. And for me, it’s been an important experiment in conscientious about our everyday storytelling, to try to use “bleak” and its equivalent in these situations instead. And at the very least, in the course of this experiment, I’ve become more aware of how often “dark” shows up in this negative context. Wouldn’t we be better off, as a culture, with non-light/dark metaphors of good and evil in general?

Okay, still too easy? Let’s ramp this up to 11, then.


Who among GenY or the Millennials hasn’t encountered Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, that Prejudice 101 standard-bearer that has helped many people understand the good fortune that underpins every story of “self-made” human beings? (There are other models, too–like “On a Plate” by Toby Morris, and the “Privilege Walk” exercise, though some find the exercise relies too much on using marginalized persons as props.)

But many people still chafe at this word, “privilege”… and I think with good reason. Because, yes, in McIntosh’s essay–and the academic structures through which an essay like this is usually read–there’s quite a bit of nuance. Privilege is “unearned advantage” and “conferred dominance”. Ideally, she also points out, many of these items should be “unearned entitlements” for everyone… although even then that’s confusing language. Why not just say “fundamental human rights”? Why are we treating a baseline condition, like feeling safe while walking down the street–a condition nonetheless denied to an horrific number of people!–as something “unearned”, as opposed to something that shouldn’t need to be?

And if this can definitional exercise can become a muddle even for people in academia, how does it fare with people whose understanding of “privilege” is of a body of advantages entirely outside their economic reach? I’m not saying everyone who struggles from class-based marginalization irrespective of ethnic background is going to have a tough time seeing themselves as “privileged”; I’m saying that this word, “privilege”, by virtue of needing to be defined to be understood, intrinsically makes it a more effective tribalist calling-card, a way of recognizing fellow members “in the know”, than a means of gathering more folks into the folds of better humanistic practice.

Simply put, I’m not surprised that our cultural debate about the underlying issue–namely, that many people’s experiences and communities are not treated as default positions in our storytelling: a situation that yields to a wide range of tacit and explicit social limitations and injustices–ends up becoming a debate about the meaning of a word.

So… we haven’t found the perfect story here yet, obviously… but when we do, I suspect the definition of a single word (wilfully manipulative debaters aside) will not become its own sticking point within it.

Shall we raise the difficulty setting even higher? Okay!

Rape Culture

This is another term that will no doubt incense everyone, including a) persons on the left for my reluctance to use it, and b) persons on the right for its sheer existence.

My problem with the term lies with the bewildering and stultifying narrowness of its focus. “Rape” is one awful outcome among many deriving from the same source, and I feel that our focus on one of these many consequences of this core belief detracts us from addressing the core belief itself.

We know that “rape culture” is insufficient because it’s also used to describe violence against feminized persons that includes battery, kidnapping, murder, as well as “smaller” encroachments such as non-consensual touch, emotional abuse, tolerated violent and dehumanizing speech, and physical intimidation. “Rape” is just a snappier summary of the whole host of violence that can emerge from that core belief.

But… “rape culture” also includes violence against quite a few other demographics. It includes the way children are treated as the property of their parents, and the way male persons who don’t perform sufficient masculinity are often beaten, tortured, sodomized, and murdered by their peers. It includes prison rape as a punchline for male persons. It includes the way the State sanctions some bodies as more acceptable war fodder than others, and excuses police shootings by victim-blaming the dead. It includes the culture that calls some boys “men” and some men “boys”, ethnicity-dependent, when faced with the full force of the law.

If I had my druthers, I would call this “entitlement culture”–and I would extend it even further, to note how it relates to the treatment of mostly masculinized persons in military service, too, and tolerates a staggering number of workplace injuries and deaths for male-dominated, culturally essential backbreaking work. I would note that a culture that decides a body in prison gets to be used as a 21st-century slave is not a culture that upholds the dignity of all human life, and thus is a culture that invites individual citizens to treat others with the same contingent regard for their fundamental personhood.

I’d call it a culture, too, in which people are encouraged in ever so many ways, from their tenderest of years on, to feel that in certain circumstances they will have the right to other people’s bodies.  (And already, I’m sure, the libertarians are shouting: “Yes! Now go one further! Resist taxation as an unjust entitlement to others’ labour!” But come on, gents: money is itself delivered unto you from the processes of a more-or-less functional State–so if you don’t want taxation, simply stop accepting money as the core representation of your labour’s value. There! FTFY!)

But what’s the problem, the rest of you might be asking, with using “rape culture” as a shorthand? Precisely the fact that it isn’t a simple summary of all the above: it’s simplistic. It doesn’t cover all of the social effects emergent from the cultural conditions at its source, and it reduces a tremendous number of critical and related factors from across human demographics.

In consequence, just as with “privilege”, we end up fighting an initial battle simply over the definition of our in-group calling-card, which wastes time, energy, and op-ed inches. And where does that leave us? Spinning our wheels without advancing a society that will, from the top down, offer better examples to those who live in it.

The Take-Away

And friends? Countrymen? Fellow humanists the world over?

These are the discussions I want to be having. I want us to talk about ensuring that fundamental human rights are universal, and that people who do not belong to a given geopolitical zone’s default culture never feel that their own story isn’t rich in opportunity and value. I want us imagineering a legal system, underpinned by a social structure, that will optimize our ability to respect each other’s distinct and complicated personhood. I want us thinking about how the implicit views we have of each other’s could be skewed by cultural metaphors and other linguistic quirks we take for granted. And I want us to enhance scientific literacy by supporting storytelling structures that optimize the inclusion of everyone’s climatological experiences.

Lofty, lofty, lofty, I know.

But I used to be on a stickler for precision. I did.

And then a year ago I went and Columbus’d myself (pun intended, for those who recognize the obvious root of the name “Colombia”), and “discovered” what second-language users have known since time immortal: namely that…

When we estrange those who do not have exactly the right terminology…

When we diminish those whose education is lesser in a given discursive sphere…

When we are more eager to do battle over a term than the idea for which it stands…

What knowledge, really, do we advance?

And what greater store of humanity can we ever hope to share?

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  • As always, your post is so much more than the sum of its parts.

    I’m a 59 year old native of the US, having taken all of the required history courses from elementary school through college, and only a couple of weeks ago was my attention called to the following italicized phrase in the 13th amendment to our Constitutuon:
    “Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

    Slavery is still legal in the US!

    You might be interested in this article in last month’s Texas Monthly called The Love Story that Upended the Texas Prison System. (I tried to link it but the link went to some totally unrelated site.)

  • wannabe

    Link: Texas Monthly – The Love Story That Upended the Texas Prison System

    Or just search “The Love Story That Upended the Texas Prison System” for other portals to this article.

  • guerillasurgeon

    I haven’t time to digest it all yet – but dammit Toby Morris. I shouldn’t have to be made aware of his work by a furriner. 🙂

  • Anne Fenwick

    I was in a discussion not long ago about whether ‘patriarchy’ is in any way a good word, given that it doesn’t apply to ‘fathers’. We agreed that it should really be ‘andrarchy’, but that it wasn’t worth changing it when we all knew what we meant. In any case, my feeling was that ‘patriarchy’ – male rule – was more applicable to a time when we had a bunch of laws that explicitly created male dominance, much as Saudi Arabia does now (to name one example). What we have is more appropriately called ‘male privilege’ and we’re supposed to all know what that means as well. But I also don’t like the word ‘privilege’, for the same reason as you in part. I don’t think we should be using language that implies there’s something wrong when actually, we usually want whatever it is to be a default. Also, intersectionality being what it is, it creates far too easy generalizations about people. Peggy McIntosh’s knapsack is full of outrageously and unselfconsciously middle-class privileges as well as white ones.

    The other reason, and perhaps the most important one, is that I think it obscures what’s actually going on far more than it reveals it. Male privilege, white privilege, whichever… what we’ve actually got is unwanted differential outcomes. When you start looking into the causes, the only standard take away line is ‘it’s complicated’. More often than not, there are multiple causes, no quick and easy solutions, and not much transferability between situations.

  • guerillasurgeon

    It’s interesting. I spend a lot of time – relatively speaking – arguing about Second Amendment rights with gun fanatics. And they are obsessed by the precise meaning of words. Apparently if you don’t know the difference between a magazine and a clip – which I do incidentally – you are not allowed to have an opinion, particularly if it happens to be in favour of gun-control. The constant refrain is “Words are important.” A sentiment with which I have a certain amount of sympathy except that it seems to be an excuse to try to shut down any debate about sensible gun controls. And to be honest I’m old enough to remember 30, 40, 50 years ago, when magazine and clip were pretty much interchangeable. And I’m thinking to myself that this is a distinction which as recently been invented, even though it’s sort of real, for the purposes of denigrating people who are in favour of gun-control for “not knowing anything about guns.” It’s words as weapons – precision munitions. 🙂

  • I was thinking about your use of bleak in place of dark and wondering it it’d work for phrases like “the dark arts”. Somehow, “the bleak arts” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

    One thing you didn’t mention is the lack of a monosyllabic word for either female or ungendered adult humans.

  • San_Ban

    “Patriarchy” works because it’s not just male rule — it’s the rule of powerful males fitting a particular stereotype of male, which includes notions of (hetero)sexual dominance, potency and fertility. Notice the insulting references to men who don’t fit the stereotypes that pervade patriarchal culture.