Words are strange and wondrously tricky creatures (yes, I have been reading Lauren Child to my children). They are what separates us from the animal kingdom, an integral part of our humanity. And yet, they are slippery so and sos. No matter what you do, they are the very devil to pin down, almost as tricky as a moonbeam upon some sand. And, despite their smallness, their essence forever trapped within an infinitesimally tiny moment, they hold immense power.
It’s one of those philosophical conundrums that I, in a desultorily bookish and unconnected with lived lives kind of way, like to discuss; where the meaning in words resides. Do they have an intrinsic meaning of their own, something that they essentially are or essentially describe? Do they hold their meaning in relation to the things that they are not, be they opposites or within interconnected webs? Or does their meaning, and hence their power, lie somewhere else entirely?
On their own, words are just tinkles in the wind, squiggles on a page; it is only when they enter the mind, yours or mine, that they start to paint a picture. In the imagination they take on a life of their own, endlessly displaced.
It’s so easy to make a mistake with words. It’s so easy for something you say or write to be taken in a different way to that which you intended, taken the wrong way. Once those words are out they gain independence, and it’s only when someone points out to you what it is that has got their hackles up that you realise what it was you said.
As teachers we seem to be constantly discussing what we mean by certain words, mastery being the latest victim of ire. I get it, I really do. In a female dominated workplace, and I mean dominated to a huge degree, what is this master teacher nonsense? Only contrast it with the female form, mistress, to feel the effect of a gendered description.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not especially prudish, but the debate over some words surprises me more than others. So, mastery-gate is a kind of geeky teachery-kind of debate, not much interesting to the rest of the non-educational obsessed world (well, the un-obsessed with the definition of teachers part of the world, anyway) but insults and expletives are another matter. All of a sudden, the debate notches up a level.
I long ago came to the conclusion that I didn’t want parts of my anatomy being used as insults; the more internal to me, the greater the insult being insulting in itself. The thing is, though, that I am quite able to make the point. I can be quite strident when I choose. In the matter of language, I can stand up for myself. I might have to stamp my foot a bit, but I’m not backwards in coming forwards when I think it’s important.
But Sam. My son. Language eludes him to a great degree. Yes, he can communicate effectively his needs and desires. He is able to ask for a drink, or to tell me not to forget to fetch his bike. He can tell me when he’s tired, or sad (especially fake sad, the kind that comes with a sign and a secret grin-under-the-eyelashes). He can tell me when he was the marble winner and what he had for lunch that day. But, you see, I know him well. I have watched my son, I have listened hard since the day he was born and I had to try and work out what the cries meant. Was he hungry? Was he wet? Did he have a tummy ache? Was he bored? Did I need to call the doctor?
People who don’t know him as well as I do don’t find him the easiest to understand, though. His speech is indistinct, his hearing weak and his conceptual understanding low. He has a self-obsessed day-dreamy mind that, rather than engaging in conversation, pops out a tale of Strictly Come Dancing, or something else equally bizarre or unconnected to what went before, leaving his friends who do not know his quirks confused (I blame his father).
So when people, adult people who should know better, use terms from the past, terms used to describe people like him, like ‘mong’ or ‘retard’, or any other number of less appealing epithets as an insult I frown, and my eyes turn squinty (if not mean). Because, unlike me, he can’t have it out with them. He can’t say, ‘oi! Stop using me as an insult!’ Thanks to that extra twenty-first chromosome, his words, the ones that engage in debate, the cut and thrust of verbal repartee have been stolen from him.
So I’ll say it. Don’t use those words. Don’t use words that used to mean my son as an insult. Whatever he is, infuriating, tiring, lovable, he is not that.
And if you didn’t know that, if you didn’t know that in using those particular words as a weapon of hurt, that when you chanted them and laughed and thought it was all a big joke, no offence, you were hurting not just your target, but a group of vulnerable people who have no weapons of return, then man up. Stop doing someone else down in order to make yourself look big, because that’s bullying by any other name. Stop and say sorry.
It’s only a word, but it means much.