What's in a word? Words hold great power. To a writer, words are their profession. Their first love.
I'm physically disabled and have been since birth. I'm also a writer, a journalist and the editor of a successful blog, Same Difference, which covers all disability issues. Currently, the site's main focus is benefit cuts and benefit sanctions.
A fellow campaigner in this area, who I highly respect, recently shared something on Facebook that brought out my deep love of the English language, and got me thinking about the power of words.
She wrote that staff at the Department for Work and Pensions are now given 'aspiration targets' when sanctioning benefit claimants. That is, stopping their benefits. So, she said, the staff aspire to sanction as many people as possible. Aspiration, a word that should be positive, has been 'poisoned' by its association with a negative Government policy.
The language lover in me was very upset at the idea of a positive word being turned upside down, at least in the eyes of many benefit claimants. Sadly, as a person who has been disabled since birth, this is not the first time I've seen positive, or harmless, words used to mean something negative. The disability community knows of far too many harmless words and phrases which have been turned upside down, into hurtful insults.
For example, there was nothing wrong with being a child from Mongolia until someone likened the facial features of children from Mongolia with the facial features of people with Downs Syndrome. Today that phrase deeply upsets any disabled person. It upsets me so much that I can't even write it.
Medically, there is nothing wrong with being spastic. The word spasticity simply means the increased tone, or tension, of muscles. However, today that word is considered so offensive that the charity Scope changed its name over 20 years ago to avoid being associated with it.
As a child, I learnt the hard way that the old playground rhyme isn't true. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words do hurt you when they are being spoken about something that you can't help, something that you can't do anything about. Sticks and stones may have the power to break bones, but words have the power to break hearts. Bones forget and heal, in time, but hearts don't. I've forgiven the unkind words I've heard about my disability, but I've never forgotten them.
Even forgiving the people who spoke those unkind words to me took a long time. For a long time, I was scared to meet new people, in case they said something unkind when they found out about my disability. The unkind words I had heard in the past had the power to cause that lasting fear.
Some of those people mattered to me more than others. It took longer to forgive the ones who mattered than the ones who didn't. Which leads me to another important point. Words spoken by those we love have more power to cause us pain, or to influence us positively, than words spoken by strangers.
Some people find that 'reclaiming' words that have been used as insults against their community helps those words lose their negative power. That's why disabled people call each other 'spastic' and 'cripple,' and why black people call each other the N-word. However, once a positive word has turned negative in the eyes of a particular group of people, it stays that way for a very long time. Personally, I think it's quite difficult, once a positive word has been turned upside down, to reclaim it fully.
In one of my favourite plays, Romeo And Juliet, Shakespeare writes "What's in a name?" A name, of course, is a word. So the answer is power. Negative words have the power to cause deep, lasting emotional pain. In exactly the same way, positive words have the power, over time, to heal the emotional pain caused by negative words.
Words, used in the right way, are very beautiful. As a writer, I appreciate words more deeply than most people. I love words more deeply than most people. So I always try my best to use them wisely. I wonder if people will ever stop the practice of "poisoning" positive words by associating them with ideas which are considered to be negative. Most of all, I strongly believe that no one should ever underestimate the power of words. Life as a disabled person has taught me that words are far more complicated than they seem.