Why your word choice matters

Nelson Mandela was a terrorist.

Or at least, for nearly 30 years, that was the word used to describe the acts of sabotage for which he was imprisoned in 1964.

Terrorist, or freedom fighter? The word choice matters very much, because the words we use reveal what we are thinking. Apartheid South Africa viewed Mandela’s acts as terrorism. But to him, and now to the rest of the world, he was fighting for freedom.

Discourse analysis is the technical name for the area of study which includes studying language “beyond the sentence boundary”. It goes beyond just analyzing the words; it aims to reveal the socio-psychological characteristics of the person using the words. In simple terms: it’s the study of how what you say reveals what you think.

Even a cursory look at political history gives excellent examples of this. The transition in the past 100 years from “the N word” to “colored” to “black” to “African American”, or from “indian” to “native American” to “first people” does not just reflect linguistic change, it reflects significant social and psychological change. We are choosing different words because we live in a different world.

Our words reveal our biases. Pro-lifers say “baby”. Pro-choicers say “foetus”. Those championing for immigration reform talk about “undocumented workers”. Their word choice reveals an emphasis on the fact that the immigrants they are fighting for are workers rather than freeloaders, and that their plight is that they are without documentation. On the opposing side, you’re more likely to hear about “illegal aliens”; language which reveals grief at the fact that laws were broken and a desire to keep a good distance.

Our words reveal our biases, but perhaps the most fascinating aspect of discourse analysis is realizing that our words create biases too. Language does more than express thought, it shapes thought. The prevailing word choices of the dominant culture do much to train our thinking in a certain way.

This has significant implications for Christians desiring to make an impact for God on our world. it means we need to become more aware of the deeper significance of the words we use. We need to consider carefully what we say, making a prayerful and purposeful effort to choose words which shape thinking in a loving and biblical way.

It may well mean we need to rephrase our Christian idiom to make the gospel clearer. For example, describing salvation as “accepting Jesus into our hearts” arguably puts an unhealthy emphasis on salvation being a primarily private and emotional thing. Digging deeper into scripture and learning that the call of discipleship involves a full and public commitment of our WHOLE selves – mind, body, spirit – to Jesus’ Lordship makes the description of “Jesus in my heart” seem thin.

Beyond the discussion of in-house theology, perhaps we would also do well to consider our word choice when engaging with the world. Whether we’re discussing the personal or the political, let’s think carefully about jettisoning words which carry pejorative slurs. Let’s choose words which train us to think graciously.

Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.
And out of the overflow of the mouth, the heart is re-shaped.

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