I think a lot about words. How they are used. How sentences come together. At a recent writer’s retreat, Jill Santopolo suggested that one of the ways to determine the voice of the character was through word choice. If my character says, “That’s totally cool!” You almost automatically think teenager. But if the character says, “That is remarkable,” you may think an adult is speaking.
But word choices do more than define the character and his/her voice. They have meaning, and meaning changes. I saw a posting the other day on Facebook. Adam Rex posted about using the term spastic in one of his COLD CEREAL books. He said he didn’t realize that was a term that offended people. He apologized for that offense. No offense to Adam, he’s a nice guy with great hair and a perfect name for what he does, looks great on book covers. I’ve read COLD CEREAL, good, fun, well-writtten book, love the characters and the fey! Haven’t gotten to the second book, it’s on my TBR.
I was amazed that he posted an apology. And not. First, I thought of cheap grace, [Grace without price; grace without cost] The book is written, published, out there, lots of kids love the book. Then, “Adam, you are so much better than this,” was my second thought and “Why did you feel the need to apologize to an anonymous someone, on an anonymous forum, only to make people think about it?” Frankly, Adam weaves a good story, is a solid and strong writer; the word probably fit. He probably used it on purpose because the word spastic has a general meaning of muscle spasm or weakness.
However, spastic, as a pejorative, [which is probably why the apology is so open] is a playground word: one meant for a quick insult, a dart when you have nothing else to shoot, as in “Watch where you’re going, spastic.” Or, more likely, when I was growing up it would have been, “Watch where you’re going, you Spaz.” Yes, if you were the receiver of the insult you were either embarrassed by the term or immune to it, such was playground life.
What didn’t make us want to curl up into the pre-natal position only made us stronger.
I was a watcher, even as a kid, the outsider, maybe the receiver of the pejorative, whatever form it took, more than the giver, although I did spit out my fair share (I have two sisters, after all, one older, one younger–life in the middle can be daunting if you are faint of heart). And, the nuns were more interested in us expanding our vocabulary than in being guardian of our little psyches.
But, I’ve I often wondered who was more damaged by the name calling, the giver or the receiver.
I grew up with many mantras to recite in adversity. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me, was one of them. Then it was playground talk. Today we call this bullying. We are no longer able to be nasty little kids and learn that we shouldn’t do this. Today the child who uses words to attack, whether for the first time or the fiftieth, is a bully. And today we call it by a very official term, an ad hominem attack; that is, lashing out at the person.
Now if you look up that little rhyming playground mantra, what pops up is a changed last line– but words can also hurt me. Words matter, I do get that.