Rod Miller: In praise of disturbing words


Miss Jo McFadden was my eighth grade teacher at Rawlins Junior High. She taught my dad, and remembered him. She must have been a hundred years old when I was in her class. I’ve spoken fondly of Miss McFadden before, when listing the best teachers I ever had.

I had misspelled a word on some assignment, and Miss McFadden called me up to her desk when the bell rang to talk with me about my mistake. I looked at my paper, and said, “No, that’s how it’s spelled”

She had me write the word on the blackboard until I got it right. Of course she was correct, but I had a mental block and couldn’t see my mistake. I think the word was “rhythm”, and I kept making the same mistake on the blackboard.

This was going to make me late for football practice, and the coach would make me run wind sprints for my tardiness. I got exasperated and said, “It’s only a word. Why is it so important?” Then came one of the most important lessons of my life.

Miss McFadden made me sit down, and then she wrote some numbers on the blackboard. The numbers have been long forgotten, but let’s say they were 132, 58 1/3, 981….random numbers like that. Then she asked me to look at the numbers and tell her how they made me feel. I sat there confused and antsy to get to practice.

Then she wrote these words, and I remember them to this day — Mother, Cancer, Hate, and Sex — and asked me what they made me feel. It was like scales fell from my eyes. I understood. I have never since said, “They are only words.”

It took Miss McFadden half an hour to teach me the power of language. The lesson has lasted a lifetime.

We have on our tongues an incredible tool for understanding the world around us, the English language. Symbolic speech using language is what sets our species apart. It is what we use to inform and influence each other. Language can cause us to go to war with one another, and it can create peace. If we don’t respect language, we are doomed to a world of numbers.

Some folks today consider human speech to be harmful to their happiness, and they want to outlaw or ban words that cause people discomfort. They want to modify our language to please themselves because they don’t like what other people say.

Do not expect me, a writer, to be your ally if your political battle is against our language. If you want to diminish the power of our words in order to protect human emotions and make people feel “safe,” then you and I are on opposite sides of the battlefield.

If you want to tweak and fine-tune the English language to create speech that is mild and comfortable, like oatmeal, you do great disservice to both the language and the human mind. And you miss the main point of symbolic language.

As both Korzybski and Hayakawa, pioneers in semantics, maintain, the word is not the thing. The word is merely a symbol that we mutually invest with a particular meaning. When I write the word “brick,” I have not placed a real brick on the page, but rather a word that we all agree has the same meaning.

Take hate speech, for instance. Or any other type of speech that disturbs us. It is not the words that are doing the hating, the words are just symbols for human thought or emotion. Doing away with the words will do nothing to get rid of hate.

If other people’s use of our language offends or threatens you, it is not words that are your enemy, it’s the people who use those words to express their beliefs. The word is not the thing.

As Supreme Court Justice Brandeis has famously said, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

So don’t try to hamstring our language if free speech offends you. Learn to use it to your advantage. Rejoice in those words that are piquant like jalapenos, not bland like oatmeal. Write them on the blackboard until you own them. Trust our common tongue.

Then go do your wind sprints.

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