The power of words

Dear Dad,

As a writer, I know you meditate frequently on the power of words. Growing up, I admired how you pored over different versions of the Bible. I remember the time I asked you to translate to me from your Greek Bible, and you laboriously worked out each word from the passage. In sermons, you’d expound on the value of understanding that the Greek word for spirit was also wind, or ghost.

I’ve grown up with an awe of the power of language, not just writing, but how language shapes our perceptions (just as I’m sure you’ve realized when comparing the impression Holy Spirit makes compared to Holy Ghost).

This week, I received a particularly nasty hate message. I’m not posting it because it’s vulgar and hateful. But the troll did say that my blog proves why we need “police MEN and army MEN” to protect weak women like me. Instead of thinking how much I needed a man for protection, though, his emphasis on the word “men” launched me into a reflection on how words create our perceptions of the world.

Gif of Sailor Moon jumping into the sky triumphantly with sparkles behind her and the text

See, things are not exactly as they seem. In fact, language creates much of our reality. For instance, different languages have different words for colors. In Russian, light blue is an entirely different word, and color, than dark blue. Might seem strange until you realize that in English, dark red and light red are defined as different colors, and words: red and pink.

For decades, police were defined as policemen, firefighters were defined as firemen, etc. Sometime in the late 20th century, however, people began pushing for gender neutral language. Policemen become police officers and firemen become firefighters.

To some, this may be just fussy PC language, but it makes a big impact. Switching to gender neutral terms makes a field open to people of all genders. There are, after all, female officers and firefighters and members of the military. Changing the terminology makes those fields more welcoming.

A vintage photo of three men and three women gathered around a table, looking at a piece of paper. They wear civilian clothes and carry firefighter helmets.

During World War II, English men and women volunteered as civilian firefighters in England. They are all heroes, regardless of gender.

And, as the troll showed, the old terms maintain a patriarchal structure. My disgruntled hater placed an emphasis on men to erase women’s existence in the military and police force, and to reassert male dominance. Policemen are strong, he said, to defend weak women, the inferior sex. It’s language used to keep women down.

I’m not particularly phased by the hater. He’s going to hate. But I am intrigued, in a world where women are fighting to make inroads into even the most male-dominated fields, by his insistence on using traditional language to keep women out.

Our words shape the very way we think. Awareness is the first step to changing them.



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