Of the power of words

April 13, 2007 at 7:16 pm (Languages, Personal, The Media)

De potentatis verborum (in probably incorrect Latin: “of the power of words”)

The whole issue with Imus demonstrates one thing: words (or, rather the choice thereof) are powerful things. As such, each word has three components:t its definition (what it means), its connotation (what it is taken to mean, and in what sense or tone or attitude it is used), and its weight (how heavy or potent it is). The classic example is the dread “n-word” (which is so potent that even I, who does not usually shy from offending, will not use because I don’t want anyone to take offense, not because it is in itself offensive).

Whereas a word’s definition is fixed by the language (especially through dictionaries and language pundits) and its connotation is a matter of history and public use and public perception, its weight is something determined by its recipient: the user uses its based on the estimated weight that may be assigned by its audience and based on the user’s motives. In fact, weight has two components to itself: what is assigned by the audience and what the user’s intentions are.

I am of the school of thought that no word has an intrinsic value to itself, and that a word’s value or weight is partly in its recipient’s control. A word’s power can be effectively neutralized when its value or weight assigned by its user is rejected by its recipient: that is, its hearer determines that he or she will not take the word as intended. This is how an offensive or insulting word can be neutralized. For example, if someone calls me a “geek” as an insult, rather than apply that word to myself with the word’s negative characteristics (its definition and connotation), I can apply it to myself or believe it is relevant to me with its positive characteristics. The same with any word.

Another method is by rejecting the weight of a word based on its being used or uttered. Why should a word affect me, for example, simply because someone used to? How does someone using a certain word change who and what I am? How can someone’s use of a word reflect who and what I know I am? The only real concern would be what others will think about me — how my image in their minds is affected — but even this can be overcome by rejecting the value of others’ thoughts and opinions.

Frankly, I fail to see how Imus’s words are offensive. I can detect no insult or offense in his words or intentions. (This might have to do with tthe fact that I don’t understand what his words mean.) Of course his intentions would be rejected anyway: the focus is on his words and how they are received. By being offended, people have empowered his words. By being offended, people have essentially declared that what Imus says, and how he says it, matters; they declare that the words he used have an affect on them (it makes them feel offended or slighted) because they let them have an affect on them.

According to my school of thought, the real issue here is not what was said but, rather, should offense be taken? should such power be given to such words? In the balance of a word’s power, who has more weight, the user or the recipient?




  1. lauriekendrick said,

    I’ve asked the same questions myself. Like you, I didn’t necessarily find what Imus said to be all that offensive. Then again, I’m an Anglo female.

    And even the word “ho” has been bantied about with so much levity in and out off the mainstream that I feel it’s actually become innocuous. Not unlike the word “bitch”.

    I guess it’s all about perspective or maybe, the lack thereof.

    Great writing, I enjoyed your post.


  2. geoff said,

    A formerly fundamental but now forgotten lesson we used to teach our children – all the way back to the “I’m made of rubber, you’re made of glue…” and “Sticks and stones” days. From the time they could speak, we used to teach our kids that words were intrinsically harmless. Now words have been given power not only by the PC crowd and the media, but by many governments as well. By defining “hate speech” they’ve created their own monster.

    A monster from the Id [Forbidden Planet]

  3. Purple Avenger said,

    Its retarded to cede that sort of power over your mental state to someone else.

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