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When Vilified Words Attack

January 21, 2013

There are words that are unquestionably bad (genocide, dystopia, clusterfuck, rectal prolapse) and there are words that are unquestionably good (euphoria, generosity, comfort, fluffykittenness. I made that last one up.) There are also, of course, neutral words (situation, concept, gesture, Switzerland).

And then there’s a whole set of words that, by their dictionary definition, should be neutral (or in certain cases positive), but that have taken on negative connotations for one reason or another; I touched on this idea in my last post about the word ‘privilege’, and a similar discussion can be found at Language Log around the word ‘entitlement’. This is all fine and good – connotations being a normal part of language, and all – except that sometimes, people *gasp!* exploit these connotations for their own purposes. Imagine!

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. There is an ongoing debate in educational circles about whether it benefits students to attend single-sex classes. There are compelling arguments both for and against that I am not going to get into at this time. A related, though much smaller, debate happened around a proposed LGBT-centric school in Toronto. In all of these discussions, what word do you think opponents jumped all over to immediately skew the debate to their side? Can you guess? I bet you can guess. SEGREGATION, OMG!

Except that this isn’t that kind of segregation. Yes, strictly speaking, one definition of ‘segregate’ is ‘to separate or set apart’, and yes, these students are being separated from each other, well done on noticing that. But this isn’t the nasty, hateful, police-enforced type of segregation historically imposed on black people in the U.S. The very important difference here is intention – the intention is to help the students being separated, not to ostracize them. There may be very valid reasons why this type of separation won’t work the way it’s intended – and those reasons are absolutely worth discussing – but it’s disingenuous to simply clamour on about “segregation” as if this idea is somehow on par with Jim Crow laws.

Some people are terrified by this

Some people are terrified by this

A few other culprits, in alphabetical order:

Agenda: When certain types of people talk about The Gay Agenda, I picture a glittery purple spiral-bound daytimer festooned with rainbow unicorn stickers. I would totally buy one of those from Little Sister’s if they had them, and then whenever Jehovah’s Witnesses or canvassers for the Conservative Party stopped by to ask me if I have a minute to talk about God and/or Stephen Harper, I’d whip it out and say, “Let me check my Gay Agenda… Hmm… No, I’m sorry, I’m all booked up spooning with my girlfriend and signing online petitions to end human rights abuses against sexual minorities in other countries. Maybe next time.”

Appropriation: ‘Appropriation’ essentially means ‘borrowing’, and just like when you borrow your neighbour’s lawn mower, it’s highly problematic if you don’t have their consent, or you use it in a way that makes them look bad (like mowing down your other neighbour’s flowers and leaving the mower sitting in their yard), or you use it in a way that mangles the borrowed item (like making a bet with your friends about what kinds of firecrackers will explode when run over by a lawn mower). Unfortunately, a lot of cultural appropriation is done this way. But I do think respectful appropriation can be a positive thing, particularly when the intent is to help or to celebrate a group of people.

Image by J.J. at

Image by J.J. at

Censorship: Blocking adult content on a child’s computer account is censorship. Forbidding people to swear at airport customs officers is censorship. Arresting armed people who utter death threats is censorship. Bleeping out the launch codes for a U.S. nuclear attack on national television is censorship. Some forms of censorship are very, very, very important. And it does not automatically equate to an attack on free speech.

Chemicals: Everyone knows that chemicals are dangerous, unnatural things created by exploding baby animals in Monsanto’s laboratory headquarters in the fourth circle of Hell, and if you touch them they will burn your eyes and liquify your inner organs and interrupt the direct flow of energy from your sacral chakra to your cute yoga teacher! Except for the part where chemicals are actually all of the substances that everything on Earth and in the Universe is made of. Including your cute yoga teacher.

Intolerance: One of my favourites. Remember when Carrie Prejean called her detractors “intolerant” and broke every reasonable person’s brain? Yes, there are some things of which I am loudly, openly, unabashedly, 100% intolerant. Particularly things that involve the treading upon of other people’s rights to freedom and happiness. I don’t plan to stop being intolerant of those things anytime soon.

The flipside of this list, of course, would be the set of supposedly-neutral words with positive connotations that people use in support of something, when the something in question is not really as great as they’re pretending it to be. I’m sure there must be a lot of this in advertising, but I’m too tired to come up with a list right now. Can you think of examples?

  1. jamesoden permalink
    January 21, 2013 2:03 pm

    There was a reason Socrates was tried and given hemlock. Folks don’t dig strict and honest use of definitions.


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