Words: first and last

laurel - metamora, Michigan
Entered on March 6, 2008

I believe very deeply in the power of words.

Words can inspire, defeat, transform or empower. They can define us and our perception of reality. They can destroy a reputation or a family. Words are amazing.

My love of language only deepened when I became a reporter, selling my words one article or column at a time. But nothing in my life has made me so appreciate the power of words as did two simple syllables uttered by my six month old daughter: “ma-ma.”

I had inundated my child with the word since mere moments after her birth, determined it would be her first. It became a running gag with my friends, family and husband as I spent an absurd amount of time rehearsing the sounds with my baby. She would answer in vowels and guttural grunts, with nary a consonant in sight.

Then, one day, I heard the faint sound of humming.

“Mmmmm-mmmmm-mmmmm,” my daughter seemed to sing.

Sensing an opportunity, I began the familiar ritual of pointing enthusiastically at myself and saying “ma-ma!” By mid-afternoon we had mastered “ooohhmm-maaa” and by evening I was sure I’d heard a “mama.”

Knowing my husband wouldn’t believe me I waited until my daughter decided to unveil her new-found mastery of the language for herself. My husband starred in disbelief, stunned that my persistence had paid off. I smiled as my child continued to use the word in reference to everything from the dog to a spoon. I didn’t care. My baby was saying my name.

It was only a short time later that I began to notice other words I said. Things I wasn’t so keen to hear my daughter mimic. I’m not talking about swear words—I had been curbing that in her presence since before she drew breath No, the word that got my attention was my describing something as “gay.”

I feel the need to say I’m not at all bigoted against homosexuals. I know many would disagree, but I think love is beautiful regardless of the gender it’s assigned to. I never said the phrase to be derogatory, it was just something I picked up. And it didn’t mean anything, right? Except it does. It means my child will grow up hearing the word as an insult. It means that to her, homosexuality could become synonymous with “wrong” or “bad” or “less.”

Because words are powerful.

So from now on, I won’t say something is “gay.” And because I hate the word anyhow and wish I had never picked it up in the first place, “retarded” is going on that same list. I’ve heard people say that ugly phrase about my autistic brother, and my attempts to lessen its power by reclaiming the word have only propagated its use.

Does this mean my child will grow up in a world without such words? No. Of course not.

It just means she won’t hear them from mama.