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Impacting Language

  • Posted on May 30, 2010 at 10:27 PM

As a writer by trade, language is frequently on my mind.  Usually, though, I think about ways that we might change the language in common use.  Then, there are those bright moments when I see that the change is already occurring.

Saturday evening I attended my nephew’s high school graduation party.  I’m certainly proud of his accomplishment and the decisions he’s making to help shape his future.  But as he sat around with his friends, I observed another reason to be proud of him.  Generally speaking, I appreciate the wonderful people these children are as I’ve seen them interact with their cousins, my children (okay, two of them are now grown children!).  I can’t say how much coaching it might have taken, but they’ve always accepted their cousins for who they are—limits, challenges and all.  I appreciate that and am very proud of them for it.  But today it was a little thing that caught my attention.

This nephew sat around the table with his friends.  Ben ran around squealing with excitement over the new areas to explore.  The friends talked on, until one of them swore in an off-hand kind of way.  My nephew, conscious of his little cousin, said, “Watch the language!”  A moment later, another friend made a comment about drug-use.  “Watch the content,” my nephew exclaimed in theatrical exasperation.

It seems like a little thing, and maybe it is, but it says something wonderful about his character and his choice of friends that he felt comfortable to make his point.  I also appreciated his manner and approach in doing so.  A gentle reminder—performed well and complied with.  The issue was important to him, but he didn’t need to make a big deal of it to get his point across.

More recently, I was putting in some time freshening up on my grant writing studies.  A small subsection, on style and usage, made a quick, short comment about “political correctness.”  In a few short paragraphs, with a similar important-but-not-a-big-deal approach, the authors gave a lesson on respecting people with regard to race, gender and ability.  The reason it struck me is because their manner wasn’t one of qualification—this is the language you’re expected to use—but instead carried a subtle but discernible undertone of respect.  They didn’t say this just because it had to be said; they mean it.  I especially like this part:  “Don’t sensationalize with phrases such as ‘afflicted with,’ ‘suffering from,’ or ‘victimized by.’”

Don’t sensationalize…  With those two words they make a great, but subtle point.  Not unlike a young man who’s comfortable enough to stand up for his values and the values of his family without making it seem like he’s taking a social risk by doing so.

Our language is changing; our ideas are changing.  Sometimes it seems slow.  Our culture still has much progress to make.  But it’s happening.