The last few months have been busy. I went on holiday, became the Managing Editor of a Canadian medical journal, spoke at an editing conference, landed a bunch of new clients, and brought home an Alaskan Malamute puppy. Busy might just be an understatement.
*dusts page, removes cobwebs from corners*
My head is so full of things I want to write about that it’s hard to choose. There’s the growing acceptance of the singular they. Or the fact that AP Style finally embraced a lowercased internet. Then there’s the debate about getting rid of the period — or the one I attended at the Editors Canada conference about abandoning apostrophes (over my zombified corpse!). And there’s even the news that budgies not only use grammar, but that they also lean toward prescriptivism.
But in light of some of the things going on in our world right now, the thing I really want to talk about is loaded language.
The notion of language as a weapon isn’t new. Sticks and stones and all that, right? But in an age where it takes two seconds to send a tweet, words can cause a lot of damage. It’s bad enough when words dismiss and minimize someone’s experience (he was just a dog; it could be worse; it’s no big deal), but when words incite violence, we should all be scared.
So what makes a word loaded? Well, all words have at least one meaning, which is usually descriptive. A loaded word (or phrase) has a secondary meaning that is evaluative. Evaluative meaning does exactly what it implies: it attaches an evaluation or judgment to the meaning of the word. That judgment can be positive or negative. Here are some examples of positively and negatively loaded words that could be used to describe the same person:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with loaded words. The problem is that when those words are used to alienate and disenfranchise certain groups of people, the damage can be far-reaching and long-lasting. In North America, for example, the stereotype of the “drunk Indian” has been around for centuries and continues to pop up. Not only is it incredibly racist, but it’s also wrong (research shows that indigenous Canadians drink less than the general population). And that’s just one example.
The good news — and I think we all need some good news right now — is that loaded language goes both ways. We can fight back against the vitriol and hate with positively loaded words. We can be language superheroes, smashing stereotypes with a few well-placed adjectives.