“Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you,” we used to say. I think our parents and teachers taught us to say that, but I never really believed it. Words actually make better weapons than sticks and stones: they only leave intangible bruises; they allow deniability, as in “Oh, I misspoke”; and, in a pinch, the victim can always be blamed for being too sensitive.
Take the word “Democrat,” as in “Democrat Party.” There’s nothing more infuriating. Bush used it all the time, even in his State of the Union Address, yet he could evade responsibility, as he did when he said to a group of Democrats: “”Now look, my diction isn’t all that good. I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language. And so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party.”
The word makes me cringe. I’ve written several letters to newspaper editors about it (and I rarely write to newspaper editors). But how to explain why it’s so offensive? Since it sounds like “rat,” it can be said with derisive emphasis; it’s only used by Republicans (apparently they even changed their 1996 party platform to refer to the other party, consistently, as the “Democrat Party”); but, basically, it’s a deliberate, but deniable, slur.
One of my good friends, priding herself on her tolerance, refers to the “homosexual” people she knows. This also makes me cringe. She doesn’t take even minor criticism well (she’s too sensitive, one might say), and I’m sure she’d argue it’s a perfectly acceptable term in common usage, and not a slur at all.
Now we have a poll that backs me up (though I won’t mention this to her!). If you ask people if they support letting “homosexuals” serve in the military, 59% say yes. Change the wording to “gays and lesbians,” and the number jumps to 70%.
My friend is tolerant, and she’s clearly not deliberately using an offensive word. But it reminds me of the early days of the civil rights movement, when we had to remember to say “black” instead of “Negro” (seems like a really long time ago). My mother-in-law was quite scornful of what she would have called political correctness, if that term had been invented then, and scoffed at us. “Colored” was the term she used, and she would not be corrected.
Words can hurt.