Why your word choice matters

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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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9 thoughts on “Why your word choice matters”

  1. Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Bronwyn? There’s a great bit where the evil institute employs wordsmiths to plant news articles in both high-brow and more mainstream papers. The words were chosen very carefully to reach the right audience with the propagandists’ message.

    It’s a great device for forwarding Lewis’s story, and a great lesson for us all to learn on keeping our eyes open for the problems with word choices.

      1. It’s the third part of the Space Trilogy, so I’d start with Out of the Silent Planet, then go to Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) and finish with That Hideous Strength.

        While all three books fall within the science fiction genre, Lewis makes them shine. Also, they fall within different genres. The first one is fairly standard mid 20th c. sci fi, the second is science fantasy and the third is sci fi gothic. Each is a page turner, so I’d have all three handy and just blaze through the bunch.

  2. If there was such a thing, I’d like to go to graduate school for a degree is discourse analysis. 🙂 I LOVE words, and I love finding the right ones for just what I want to express. Great food for thought about how powerful words are – it’s absolutely true.

    1. My friend Kelly tells me that the graduate degree we would be looking for is in linguistics. She referred me to George lakoff, and a preliminary web search on him and his books has piqued my interest again!

  3. Hmmmm…. you should tell me (gently, kindly, and with grace) if I made (do make) this mistake when speaking politically. (or, in any way, but especially politically). Oh, and tell me privately, please! 🙂 Great post.

    1. Jamie, I didn’t mean to point fingers at anyone, and I certainly have never found anything you’ve said to be offensive! (Although from what ive read I would say your word choice reveals you to be a person of faith, kindness, family commitment, and all about social justice….no surprises there!) this post came from my reflecting on the many comments that came out of the immigration piece, and how different the vocabulary of immigration is depending on your position. It reminded me of a class I took on political analysis and discourse theory at college and last week’s internet fiesta in my corner got me thinking again….

      1. Oh I know you weren’t finger pointing! I figured you were talking about the immigration piece. But your post did cause me to reflect on the fact that I don’t always think through my word choice very well (usually my spoken words, not the written ones). So if you notice something, feel free to tell me! Good post if it gets us thinking, so well done. 🙂

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