I believe in the power of words.
The way we use words defines us regionally, locally and personally – words often put us in our place, quite literally. Having lived in the southern US, in California and in New Jersey, I have seen words used to define belonging to a particular part of the country; to include and exclude; to define and reinforce the groups to which we belong voluntarily or involuntarily. More than once in my life, I’ve heard some variation of “You ain’t from around here, are you?” when in fact, I am from around here – wherever here is – perhaps I choose to express myself differently than some.
In my role as a college speech teacher, I watch students struggle with finding the right words to shape a persona for themselves as public speakers. Words that work comfortably among friends in the hallway fall short of adequate in the formal arena of presentation. In my interracial marriage, I see the way my husband uses words with ease to connect with those who share his cultural heritage and dialect and I watch and listen as he abandons those colloquial, comfortable words just as easily in favor of others when he expresses himself professionally. And then there is teen-speak – a generationally-defined use of language that unites and delineates and morphs at such a speed so as to be incomprehensible to those of us who’ve been around the block a time or two.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me sincerely that sticks and stone could break my bones, but words could never hurt me. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. Words can hurt and heal; diminish and affirm. They represent a power waiting to be harnessed by all of us.
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