When it comes to language, humans are an interesting species. And when it comes to English, we’re very interesting. One source claims English contains over one million words (according to the Global Language Monitor: 1,025,109.8 words as of January 1, 2014, with approximately 14.7 being added every day; other sources put English as containing as many as 600,000 words), most of which barely meet the definition – the millionth word was “Web 2.0.” Clearly, a fair percentage of the language falls easily into the realm of arcana, to say nothing of the number of words that “disappear” from lack of relevance and, therefore, their usage as new words are added.
How many words does the average (native) American know? Harvard University professor Stephen Pinker claims some researchers believe the average high school graduate has approximately 60,000 words in her/his vocabulary, but this number includes root words and their derivatives, acronyms, and so forth. It should probably go without saying that for most of us, based on usage, the vast majority of these words are filed in a dusty corner of our brains. How many different English words does the average American use on a more or less regular basis? The so-called experts are a bit murky when answering this question, but from what I read (and, no, I didn’t do exhaustive research) I found the range of 2,000 – 2,500 to be a fair estimate.
Just to have a base of reference, I’m going to rely upon the 2,500 number. No special reason; I’m just feeling generous today. Of the pool of regularly used words there are several that are not considered appropriate for so-called polite conversation or public display. We could, of course, begin with George Carlin’s notorious seven words you can’t say on the air – although a few of those have mainstreamed since Carlin launched that routine 42 years ago – but there are many others. And some aren’t objectionable as words, per se (as is the case with one or two from Carlin’s list), but fall into the category of being politically incorrect. As Messrs. Merriam and Webster note:
politically correct adjective
: agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people.
Some of the politically incorrect words are particularly easy to identify, especially those associated as being insulting to specific ethnic groups or religions. Others are less obvious, and can fall in and out of fashion with the PC police. One that immediately comes to mind is the word “girl” when used in reference to any female who has passed puberty. In my father’s generation, it was commonplace for men to refer to female office workers as girls, regardless of what role they played in the company, and that reference was used outside the workplace, as well.
But the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s brought to everyone’s attention that using the word girl would be demeaning when referring to a woman. This was especially true as adult males were referred to as men. (Interesting, though, is that the network of the power businessmen was — and still is — called the “old boys’ club” and not the old men’s club; clearly indicating the negative implication of “old men.”)
At some point, though, the tide turned somewhat. Not one hundred and eighty degrees, but at least ninety. Several years ago I noticed women referring to other women as “the girls,” and I began hearing it regularly in the workplace, as well. Frankly, I cannot recall the last time I heard a man reprimanded for referring to a woman as a girl, although I heard it quite a number of times between, say, the late sixties and the early years of the twenty-first century. So is the term now considered OK to use? I don’t know for certain, but suspect it is less offensive to many women born since around 1970 than it was to the earlier generation. And while I still choose to refer to adult women as women, the word girls has passed through my lips on occasion – and when it has, no one has seemed even remotely offended.
The effect that language has on us largely comes down to the intentions of the speaker. Because, let’s face it, using so-called politically correct terminology becomes almost meaningless if the speaker’s mind is dripping with prejudice, hatred, or lack of compassion. To use the word girl as my example, if I am a misogynist I might use the term woman, but be thinking (perhaps subconsciously) of other, more subtle, ways to demean my female co-workers.
Recently, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, began a world-wide effort to ban the word “bossy” to describe girls who assume leadership roles in school or at play, and women who are aggressive in their performance in the workplace. Sandberg’s contention is that the word will make girls associate the leadership trait of assertiveness (OK, strong assertiveness bordering on aggressiveness) as being inappropriate for females and, as a result, they will become less in life than what they could be – or, equally reprehensible, be emotionally damaged. While I applaud the effort to encourage anyone, female or male, to pursue leadership positions (if such be their desire), the very idea of banning a word to effect change is ludicrous to me. Even if the word, or any word, could be banned, language is only one influence on behavior, and possibly not a primary one, at that. Besides, the conscientious individual will modify her or his linguistic efforts based on their behavioral efforts. As for those whose behavior toward others is unconcerned with equity in human relations, they won’t be influenced by a mandate to alter their language. (To be fair, while I have not read Ms. Sandberg’s platform in minute detail, I doubt she believes the word can be banned. As the COO of Facebook, she was most likely trying to engage a global recognition and discussion of what she perceives as a major issue.)
I’m not so naïve that I fail to understand the importance of long-term better use of language. Hardly. But it has been my experience that those who would refer to someone as being bossy, or to use language that demeans a person because of their gender, ethnicity, religion, or whatever else, usually has other issues, more deeply rooted, to contend with. Encouraging better use of language is a part of culture change, but cannot be the only element for culture change to have any chance of success at all.
Some critics of the Ban Bossy initiative argue that calling a woman bossy isn’t necessarily negative and, in fact is a term that should be embraced. Whether or not that is true, I know that I have worked for some people – both men and women — whose management styles generated negative talk (always around the water cooler, of course). While I never heard the word bossy used – either for men or women – I most often heard the words “asshole,” “bitch,” and “bastard” used in its place: Different words, but pretty much the same meaning. Perhaps equally, if not more, important, is that in not one instance was there universal agreement about the manager’s attitude, although I’d have to say the dissenters were in a distinct minority — a minority which was usually referred to as “ass-kissers.” If that doesn’t support my earlier statement about deeper issues, nothing will.
In the best of all worlds we would accept and address our own shortcomings (real and perceived) interacting with bossy people, different ethnicities, etc., and deal with them in a positive way. But it’s just easier to turn our focus on someone else’s successes, especially if those successes come from a strong personality. But “banning” words or insisting upon the use of politically correct jargon doesn’t solve any cultural issues. What is often the result is the masking of negative intentions. And, as with any mask, the truth remains hidden and, unfortunately, bad behavior often flies under the radar. Unfortunately, we love easy solutions to problems, and the suggestion that altering word usage will effect culture change is about as easy as it gets.
I am currently working with a group of people to effectively implement a policy that directs members of a church congregation who find themselves in conflict with another member to seek conflict resolution rather than perpetuating the conflict and, in a worst-case scenario, resign their membership. While the congregation has approved the policy that directs this process, there is a wide gap between approval and the culture change necessary to bring life to the policy and process. Closing that gap will require effort on behalf of the entire congregation, and a better understanding of communication.
Encouraging the better use of language is not a bad thing, but it is just one of the elements toward better interpersonal relationships. I maintain that meaningful, global culture change has to begin and develop with child rearing. Set the best example with your own behavior (whether or not you have children) and engage children and adolescents in discussions about what is morally right and good. If we all treat each other with equity and respect, our children will learn from our practice, and in a couple of generations maybe we’ll have a culture where words are used far less to demean and degrade, and every confrontation is initiated with good intentions.
Just make certain to remember where the road of good intentions leads to.