I love words. The textures, the shapes, popping p’s and sharp t’s, languorous l’s and sighing h’s. I reckon most writers love words. But we also know that words are powerful. You remember the old schoolyard chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? Flagrant lie. And secretly, we all know it.

There ought to be a retirement home for words that no longer serve us, words that have changed meaning over time, or worn out their old meanings. “Meet,” for instance. Sure, we still use “meet” quite a bit — “I will meet you for lunch,” “Tommy has a swim meet” — but we no longer use it to mean “proper” or “appropriate,” as in “it is right and meet that we should join this couple in matrimony.” That’s okay. “Meet” still has a lot of life left in it. But words that no longer make sense in society — words we’ve learned are hurtful — those are another story. Like statues that serve only to remind an oppressed people of their oppression, words that hurt should be dropped for something more relevant.

Words should also be used with equality. I saw two photos of people braving the horrors of Hurricane Harvey recently. One showed a white couple, wading through chest-deep water, and the caption said something along the lines of “Bob and Judy So-and-So are seen leaving a grocery store after finding bread and water.” Hold that sentence in your mind. The other photo showed a person of color doing the exact same thing as Bob and Judy So-and-So, only this caption reported her action as “looting.” Either taking bread and water is looting or it is surviving. It cannot depend on the color of one’s skin. Words aren’t inherently judgmental; the people using them frequently are. That’s not okay.

I’m not suggesting the implementation of “word police” (although if that ever becomes a real job, sign me up!). I’m not talking about “political correctness.” I’m talking about using words thoughtfully. We’ve become a nation of blurters, led by a Blurter-in-Chief, who frequently does not seem to have the slightest idea what is coming out of his mouth. I’m all for speaking one’s mind, but surely the state of my mind — of anyone’s mind — isn’t worthy of being expressed every minute of every day. Surely we’re all aware enough to recognize that just as you wouldn’t put any old thing into your mouth, you shouldn’t let any old thing come out of it.

We are currently in the wake of a tragedy, and there is no better time for self-examination. So let’s talk about words, how we use them and whether or not we ought to. Just like the woman in Houston who finally lost her temper after having microphones shoved into her face and repeatedly being asked “how she felt” about being uprooted, we must reserve the right to be sensitive about words. Because words will hurt us, just as surely as any force of nature.

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