There’s an old saying that goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” While the intention behind the rhyme encourages children being taunted and bullied to stay strong and to not take the name calling to heart, the reality is much different. The meaning behind certain words have changed significantly throughout history. Colloquial phrases used back in the 90s aren’t the same anymore even if the reactions, connotations, and expectations behind them remain unchanged.
There’s a constant effort being pushed to sound “politically correct”; measures and descriptive consideration are taken as to not offend those one is speaking to and speaking of. While there are many students who take great care in watching what words they chose to use on a daily basis, due to pop culture and the influence of the media, words are constantly desensitized and misused, perpetuating their original offensive intent.
It’s important to understand the context behind words, especially when they are racial slurs or homophobic comments. People not identifying with certain cultural communities throw around statements that are offensive to these groups without realizing how they’re offensive in the first place. By using these phrases, it diminishes cultural identities and erases the effort put into reversing these negative stereotypes.
“I find it offensive when people say, ‘That’s so gay’ as a response to something that is negative or displeasing. Something that you don’t like doesn’t equate to something that is gay; that’s my sexual preference and not a derogatory slur,” says Bill Jacobsen. He explains, “A couple of people who were using racial slurs told me that I shouldn’t be offended because I’m only half black. People who aren’t part of my community often do not understand the historical context behind these words…I think it’s important to consider the implication behind the words you’re choosing to use, especially if it originated in a community you are not part of.”
Words associated with mental illness and other developmental issues are so often used that we become desensitized to their meaning. “I think the ones that really stand out to me are cases when people use terms of mental illness to denote relatively minor events. For example, “’My mom told me to clean the house, she’s so OCD!’” says fourth-year health and psychology student Chelsie Johnson. “Although in some cases they could be accurate, the overuse and the use in the wrong context demeans the struggles of those living with the mental illnesses.”
Using these words work to desensitize, or in other words, lessen the shock factor associated with them.
Although it may be used for comic relief, the subject of death should not be taken so lightly, as it disrespects those who struggle in their everyday lives and contemplate suicide. “A phrase that I feel is highly used nowadays is ‘I’m dead,’ to express how comedic or hilarious something is. I think this phrase neglects the true value of “living,” and being there in the moment for a mere expression of one’s amusement,” says fourth-year management student Talha Khatri. “‘I’m dead’ places a very low value to the reality of death, and using it in a context to express a short-lived feeling indirectly demoralizes the status of your life — you are living and satisfied. There are many other ways to express your happiness, saying ’I’m dead’ shouldn’t be one of them,” he adds.
Other words are misused not only for the hype they create on social media, but also for the possible benefits that can come with it. “The word ‘feminist’ is a hype word. I think it’s ineffective the way people use it, and it’s kind of just lost its true meaning. There are a lot of people saying that they are feminists without actually understanding what it means to be one,” says third-year neuroscience and mental health student Taha Tanzeem. Being a feminist often implies that you are socially aware and intelligent about controversial issues. Ten years ago, many were hesitant to label themselves as a feminist in fear of being socially rejected. Now, it’s a way to connect with people, and seem like the cooler person in the room.
“I feel like feminism is an overused term because I’ve witnessed many instances where people would claim themselves as feminists, yet they would have double standards towards women, and sometimes even be blatantly sexist,” explains Michelle Dong, a second-year environmental science student. “On the contrary, there are those who would completely shut it down, but believe everything they stand for, just because of their ignorance towards the term itself,” she continues. In these cases, it is important to research and understand what it means to be a feminist in the first place, and not rely on hearsay from those around you.
The way we communicate shapes the relationships we form, and the ideologies we develop through the years. It’s important to stay aware of the implications of the words we chose to use: when did being considerate become such a burden to society? Research, and stay informed by listening to people about their various experiences and how it affects them. Words can do a lot more than hurt; they can have a lasting impact on someone’s growth.