on words







There are several variations on this adage, “names” will never hurt me, words will never “break” me, but the above is how I remember the phrase and it’s the earliest usage recorded, The Christian Recorder, 1862.


Of course, words hurt, names hurt, they hurt all the time. Especially in this hurt hurling world we find ourselves in. I’ve hurled quite a few hurtful words myself, but for now make no apologies (a zealous, political, potty-mouth is not the point here). I recently watched a video from actress Mayim Bialik (whom I love) on the word GIRLS, “urging men to stop referring to women as girls,” womanhood beginning somewhere around 18-20 years of age. It’s a very good video, Bialik is intelligent, charming, fun to watch and perfectly on point.

“It matters what we call people, language matters, words have meaning and the way we use words changes the way we frame things in out mind.”

She references the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which tell us that language influences thought. She addresses the outdated and insensitive misuse of the word. She talks about our male-centered culture (geez, ain’t that the truth), the inferior implications attached to the word GIRL, and that the usage of that particular word leaves one to “assume an insensitive structure of power where men are on the top and women are on the bottom” (a bit heavy-handed, I thought). Bialik makes the point that “language sets expectations,” but I have issues with our “say this, don’t say that” world.

Political correctness is not necessarily going to remove expectations, intentions, or associations. Has replacing the word “stewardess” with “flight attendant” made us respect the women who work on a plane more? “That stewardess was such a bitch, no excuse me, that flight attendant was such a bitch.” Has replacing the word “secretary” with “administrative assistant” created a position of more responsibility, more pay? In reference to Bialik’s bar-story-opener, if the buffoon at the bar refers to the person he is ogling as “girl,” is he suddenly more respectful, more sensitive if he refers to the person he is ogling as “woman?” What will happen to “girl’s-night-out?” (Never really liked that expression, how about “night-to-drink-wine-and-wear-spandex?”) My problem is I always shudder a bit when I hear someone say we shouldn’t use a certain word—censorship aside, in our culture of broken sentences, hieroglyphic communication, dwindling vocabularies and journalistic repression, any assault on words concerns me. Yes, yes, yes, we all need to be civil, sensitive, respectful and pay attention to what comes out of our mouths because words matter. But offensive words and offensive people are not going to go away. While it is admirable of Bialik to bring this subject to our attention and to try and right a legitimate wrong, I suspect that beyond sheer stupidity, name calling, bullying, political incorrectness, are symptomatic of a much deeper problem, probably involving self-esteem. And yes, as Bialik suggested we should point out to others language that we find offensive or demeaning, for mouths and minds have changed. But if we occasionally try to adhere to the sticks and stones adage, if we give the negative words less power over us, the sting of insult will be a little less and our understanding of others behavior may be a little more.

It may all boil down to age; much of what was once important fades with time—virility, beauty, correctness, and I’ve tussled with the concept of “what I should do” for too long. I work in retail and refer to myself as a “shopgirl” as do others in the industry. Yes, it’s a different usage of the word “girl,” but my female co-workers (most of whom are older than me) and I often refer to other women who work in retail as “girls.” There is no sexism, age discrimination, no career agenda or malintent attached to the word. At age sixty-five, I could care less if someone calls me a girl. Frankly, I often find it something to smile about.



Mayim Bialik on urging men to stop referring to women as girls


photo credit: pinterest


Leave a Comment