How we describe something can transform how we view it. Lauren Bravo wraps her tongue around the small linguistic tweaks that can have a big impact
These are busy times for words. Language is evolving faster than ever, and social media has made publishers of us all. But among the buzzwords and political doublespeak, language still wields real power. The smallest linguistic alterations can create powerful, positive changes in the way we view things, even ourselves.
This year, researchers from the University of Carolina, along with colleagues at Colgate University and Penn State, found that asking participants to consider ‘people in a group’ rather than ‘a group of people’, made them much more likely to think about the subject’s thoughts and feelings. Make that ‘a group of refugees’, or less empathetically, ‘migrants’, and we begin to recognise the dehumanising effect of a thousand tabloid headlines.
Be informed. Be inspired.
It’s a neat trick; the language flip. It forces us to dig up the systemic defaults buried deep in our culture, and give them a good airing. Do they still represent us? Did they ever, really? We’re seeing it in agriculture: “I think we need to take back our language. I want to call my organic carrots ‘carrots’ and let [other farmers] call theirs a chemical carrot,” argues organic farmer (sorry, ‘farmer’) Mary Jane Butters in an interview on organic.org. Language puts the burden of proof on certain groups, but it can likewise move it just as easily.
What about when it comes to gender equality? Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams declared in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: “We should stop calling feminists ‘feminists’ and just start calling people who aren’t feminist ‘sexist’ – and then everyone else is just a human. You are either a normal person or a sexist”.
For those of us who wearily had the ‘feminism means equality for everyone!’ conversation one too many times, it makes sense. Could we make the whole movement opt-out, rather than opt-in?
Sometimes it isn’t so much about changing words, as redefining them. Take ‘nude’ – the fashion term used to describe everything from shoes to lipstick. It is only really nude if you fall on the Caucasian, peachy-beige part of the colour chart (see also: ‘flesh-coloured’ plasters). But change is finally afoot; Christian Louboutin’s Nudes collection featured the designer’s trademark stilettos in five inclusive shades, while ethical lingerie brands Naja and Nubian Skin make underwear and hosiery that women of colour can truly call ‘nude’. It’s an important step forward for diversity, but it’s also barefaced good business.
We should stop calling feminists ‘feminists’ and just start calling people who aren’t feminist ‘sexist’
And even the most important ideas still need the right sales patter. Anthropologist Jason Hickel
proposes a radical overhaul in global development – starting with the word itself. We need to stop focusing on growth, and start ‘de-developing’ the world’s richest nations to a more sustainable level instead. Plenty of countries, he points out, have life expectancies and happiness levels comparable with the US and western Europe, but with only a fraction of the wealth and waste.
Only we can’t say ‘de-developing’, of course, because who’s going to sign up for that? In a system that values the biggest, richest, fastest and fanciest, how do you persuade people that smaller, slower and simpler isn’t actually a downgrade, but a much-needed modification?
Well, perhaps by calling it ‘mindful’. Maybe you sell it as a ‘detox’ or a ‘consumption cleanse’. It’s no secret that the millennials love a pithy rebrand – call toast ‘chargrilled bread’ and we’ll order it excitedly from a brunch menu. But while some might scoff at modern vernacular, we should let language lead us into new mindsets. Could we embrace South America’s philosophy of buen vivir, putting community good above the individual – or revive the Greek eudaimonia, Aristotle’s term for human flourishing?
Consider the hype around hygge last year; the Danish word that means a feeling of cosy contentment (or expensive homewares, depending on who you ask). Cynics might say all we did with hygge was purloin it to flog candles and cinnamon buns, but for frazzled, over-stimulated Brits, I think the appeal ran much deeper. Maybe sometimes you don’t realise what you’re missing until there’s a word for it.
Images: Sabine Scheckel / Getty
Support media that works for you
Instead of being owned by a media mogul, Positive News is owned by the many. As a co-operative, we’re accountable to our readers and any surplus we make is reinvested into our journalism. Please support Positive News as a subscriber and you’ll receive our inspiring current affairs magazine delivered to your door each quarter.