On the “R” Word and Insults in Books

I was reading a good book recently. It was funny and well-written, with a voice that was clear as a bell. But after three uses of the R word (as in, someone who faces developmental challenges), I had to put it down.

Interested in linguistics? John McWhorter's books are an excellent place to start!

Interested in linguistics? John McWhorter’s books are an excellent place to start!

I’m trained as a linguist. So on one level, I believe words are a social construct whose meaning can depend entirely upon the users. Words are vessels for sound and meaning. Words are wonderful, because with just one or two little sounds, we can convey a universe. We have created this system whereby these little sounds summon nearly anything, and everyone who speaks your language can understand you.

Language is flexible and fun, and normally I’m the last person to tell you how to use it. I drop the F-bomb like it’s my job, because there’s nothing inherently offensive about it. (Unless, I suppose, you’re anti-sex, in which case I’m anti-you.)

But insults are an entirely different beast. These are words used to destroy people.

“But hold on,” the author might say, if he or she read this little blog. “It’s just a joke. I didn’t mean any of that.”

I get it. Everyone loves jokes, and no one wants to analyze every single word they utter. But there’s nothing funny about using a word that has and continues to hurt so many.

This is the other edge of the sword that is language. When you choose to speak, you are entering into a contract of sorts. You are acknowledging that the words you speak carry greater meaning beyond their composite sounds. Most of the time, we benefit from this, in that we can make ourselves understood to strangers. But we must also acknowledge that there is a history of oppression and fear lingering behind certain combinations of sound.

There are those who have been on the receiving end of insults who seek to reclaim them, who want to imbue oppressive words with positivity. Let them. That’s the great part of language–how it changes with us. But if you keep using these words in their traditional context of insult, you are only prolonging the negativity.

Words are our right and our responsibility. Use them carefully.

Note: The book pictured above is not the book I’m talking about. I didn’t want to name and shame that author. But if you are interested in some of the linguistic concepts I’ve so clumsily explained, check out McWhorter’s careful work in the field. He’s one of the best.

3 replies »

  1. Well put Melody, and I agree. I think this is especially frustrating when reading a BOOK ABOUT LANGUAGE. Urgh. Words are a responsibility as you said. Have you ever seen the movie Biloxi Blues with Matthew Broderick? His character is a writer and learns great lessons about words.


    • Ah! I should be clear that the book that used the word and the book pictured are not the same – I’ve added a note to the original post.

      I haven’t seen that movie, but I should!


  2. As writers, it’s our gift and our burden to ensure that the right words are used for the right reasons. Great points.


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