I tried to create a facebook page dedicated only to my cosplay, and for a while it worked. Unfortunately my lawful good alignment is stronger than my loathing for confrontation and I find myself having conversations with total strangers about human rights issues. To be fair, these conversations always involve something totally geeky/nerdy, but still have a flavor of “people deserve to be treated poorly because they do x” which I just can’t turn away from.
Lately people have been talking with me about the power of words. A few people continued to make the claim that words only have the meaning that you intend for them to have. Unfortunately for us, that’s not the way that language works. If every word was defined solely by the intent of the speaker, we’d have no way of understanding each other without being able to read minds. So, for posterity’s sake (and so I can have the link for future arguments of similar ilk) here is my post from facebook. Enjoy!
I make it a point to only post nerd/geek things on this page. Somehow, magically, a lot of really great human rights related geeky information has come my way. In that same spirit, I’d like to talk a little about psychology of language, BUT GEEKY!
Words are more than just words. When you hear a word, you can’t help but bring up associations with this words. Why? What a great question! Your brain is made up of tiny cells that are all interconnected. Each cell has some specialized purpose. These cells are connected in groups that relate to each other, and those groups are connected to other groups. So, if you hear something, you may recognize the sound, let’s say it’s a phaser. You hear a sound, it’s processed by your auditory cortex. From there, that information is taken to be processed by your memory storage. You think “Hey, that’s a PHASER!” Memory and emotion are close together, so when you hear the sound it wouldn’t be surprising to experience excitement, leading to the behavior of wanting to track the sound down and make a new friend.
Now, if you’re in the camp of “words are just words” you’re probably thinking “Ivy, that’s just a sound! Words have no meaning without intent!” Ignoring for a moment that words are made up of sounds, let’s do another experiment. Draw a black cat. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Chances are, you drew a picture of a little furry critter with four legs, a longish tail, maybe gold or green eyes, whiskers, pointy ears, and it’s probably going to be black. I say the words “black cat” and into your mind pops an image you’ve created based on your previous experiences with said little furry guys. There may also be emotion attached to these words: you may be frightened of black cats, and thinking of them may make you anxious. You may have had a black cat, so you may be feeling the love for a sweet little friend.
Now, if I say “draw Black Cat” and you have any experience with Spiderman, you may draw a picture of a well muscled, well endowed woman in a black shiny body suit with white fur accents and white hair. Black Cat and black cat are the same words with only slight variations, but they mean two different things. My intent in this doesn’t matter, as you can only conjure images of Black Cat if you are aware of her as a comic book character, whereas most people can conjure images of a black cat because experiences of them are fairly common.
If I say “Hand me that minion” when what I really want is a comic book, there is no way for you to know my intent from the words that I’m saying. We may be in a comic book shop, and I may be pointing directly at one that I want, but you are most likely going to be thinking “what potato? there are no potatoes here!”
Now, if I say “don’t be such a garbledeflargen” you may not know what a garbledeflargen is, but you can surmise that it’s something you don’t want to be.
Words that are paired with a particular connotation (aka: you don’t want to be x) take on the flavor of that connotation. For years, being a geek or a nerd was a terrible thing. People spat those words with derision. We somehow magically appropriated these words and have made them more positive. There are still pockets of people who hear geek and nerd and assume that they are bad things. We, however have taken pride in them and have made it so that more people than not can see it as a good thing. This can ONLY be done by people who qualify as that particular category of word. (Ie: if we associate Ferengi with greedy cowards, only Ferengi can take that word back.)
TL/DR: The intent of a word can not be heard over previous associations with that word. Words are more than just words, they carry history, experience, and emotion with them. Without these associations, language would have no meaning and would be useless. It’s impossible to hear a word without hearing everything you’ve experienced with it before. The word “retarded” has been used in a negative way as a pejorative term for so long that it’s impossible to hear it without hearing “something I should not be, something that is defective, something that is less.” It’s been so tainted with these feelings that the medical community has forsaken it as a diagnosis to prevent damaging their patients with the stigma. Unfortunately, the word still persists and it is still connected to a population of people that in no way deserves to be considered “less” or “stupid.” So please, if you choose to tell someone that they’re stupid or that they’re doing something you think is unworthy, don’t use a word that’s associated with a group of people (retarded, gay, girly). Be a superhero. Be creative. Don’t be a potato