I, quite simply, adore words.
Whether reading them, writing them, or speaking them doesn’t really matter. There is not much that’s more satisfying than stumbling upon the mot juste - either mine or someone else’s - even if it’s heavy with bombast. Nothing more roweling than the opposite.
I also just love the sound of some of them. Ennui. Quibble. Gallivant. Mellifluous.
And I love to know what they mean. A hamartia, for instance, is a tragic flaw. How poetic. One that is recondite - deep, obscure, concealed - even more so.
It’s probably no surprise then, that I subscribe to a quotidian email from Merriam-Webster highlighting a Word of the Day. Mostly they elicit only ephemeral attention, but once in a while, I’ll note one that’s special. Or I’ll learn something about a word I have been using - sometimes incorrectly.
Like the word ambivalent. I’ve used it forever it seems, as a synonym to apathetic or indifferent, when what it really means - conflicted - is not the same at all.
Recently, the word I woke up to was noblesse oblige. It rankled. (And not because it’s actually two words.)
But let’s come back to that.
Because I think first, we need to address the ways many of us grew up thinking about words. One is: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
I mean, just wrong. No, not just wrong, if I may be so bold, but potentially damaging because they can matter a great deal and they can absolutely hurt.
Trouble agreeing words matter? Let me ask how might my character be perceived if I regularly used some of the words I have here. If, in my everyday conversation, I employed the extent of my voluminous vocabulary.
At the very least, pretentious, probably. Pompous. Supercilious.
What if all this grandiloquence was used incorrectly? What if I used simpler words? Slang? Swear words? Or rather, cuss words? What are these different scenarios and even the words describing them conjuring? How does my gender play in? The fact that I’m white?
Words have incredible power. Especially - especially - when they are used against someone systematically.
The adage above is, at times, certainly intended to foster resilience. However, its idea is all too often co-opted by those wielding it as a smokescreen as they say whatever they want. Of course, what they want to say is usually not kind, compassionate, or thoughtful.
While words vary in terms of how and how much they affect, insinuating they are benign is foolish. And the related lament about the tribulations of “political correctness” seems to come, in my experience, from those who are used to being offensive and don’t want to do better. It’s commonly followed by a call to toughen up and be less sensitive - a call I can’t help but vacillate between regarding as staggeringly naive or viciously cunning.
Gaslighting at its most insidious.
Another idea that needs to be addressed is this: actions speak louder than words.
Man. Wrong again.
Not that actions don’t matter, of course, but more than words? Really?
What if someone performs an action that aligns with the words they use versus that same action that is in contrast to their words? Doesn’t that change the perception of the action?
Let’s play it out.
I say I’m going to do the dishes and I do them.
I say I’m not going to do the dishes and I do them.
I say I’m going to do the dishes and I don’t do them.
I say I’m not going to do the dishes and I don’t do them.
Isn’t it the combination of words and actions then that really provides the context?
So let’s now look at the word that started this little journey. Because it’s important to point out that at least part of why words matter is because of the ideas for which they might be shorthand. And using these words without an adequate understanding of those ideas can lead us to unwittingly perpetuate them.
True, you probably won’t be throwing out noblesse oblige on your next zoom call this week, but indulge me.
Noblesse oblige translates to “nobility obligates.” It is the idea that those born of a higher rank are obligated to act with honor, generosity, and responsibility. Which seem like good things, right?
Yes, well, the idea isn’t problematic because of the principles it promotes, it’s problematic because it assumes a group of lower born people who are not obligated to and, therefore, perhaps not expected to or argued not capable of acting according to these same principles.
A magnanimous upper class and the ignoble rabble.
It also implies that the group born of a higher rank is perhaps expected to be above some of our most troublesome human foibles leading to its own set of challenges like for instance, the drive to cover up their inevitable missteps.
Watch nearly any episode of The Crown if you want a good example.
Anyway, this week I implore you then, be assiduous with your utterances and maybe take a moment to ask yourself what you might have said that you didn’t say.