George Orwell, in his book “1984,” wrote, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Language is spectacular. As a writer, I have long adored analyzing semantics, playing with words, placing them in various contexts and watching their meanings change. The idea that adding or subtracting a single word from a phrase could change the meaning of the whole sentence fascinates me.
It was not until recently, however, that I realized the true extent of the effects that words, or the lack thereof, could have on people and their mental health.
Even at a young age, I understood the power that words could carry and the necessity of choosing them carefully in order to avoid offending or hurting someone. On a base level, elementary-aged me realized that when I called my brother annoying, it could hurt his feelings, or when I spoke rudely to adults, they felt disrespected.
Now, as a quasi-adult, I am aware that words are infinitely more powerful than that. They have the power to instigate change, to incite revolution or facilitate peace. They are capable of altering someone’s perception of themselves, our perceptions of ourselves.
More and more, I am becoming aware of how necessary it is to choose our words with care — not only when speaking to others, but also when describing ourselves.
Lera Boroditsky, in “How Language Shapes Thought,” an article published in the 2011 Scientific American journal, writes, “Studies have shown that changing how people talk changes how they think. Teaching people new color words, for instance, changes their ability to discriminate colors. And teaching people a new way of talking about time gives them a new way of thinking about it.”
I understand this to mean that changing the way we use our words when speaking about sensitive subjects such as body image, intelligence or mental disabilities not only changes the way we think, but also expands our thinking regarding the concepts. Adjusting our word choice could alter our perception of usually stigmatized topics.
For example, the difference between saying, “I am stupid” and “I sometimes do stupid things,” or “I am fat” and “I have fat,” is marginal, but this slight alteration in word choice from absolute to conditional statements completely changes the sentence and the meaning behind it. It shifts the weight from self-deprecation to self-improvement; it gives options for change instead of stating a concrete definition.
We live in a society that honors the humble and tends to glorify self-deprecation. Personally, I find myself using absolutes as a matter of fact — and I have seen first-hand how word choice begins to affect thoughts.
Changing our words changes the way we think, the way we view ourselves and others. Because of this, I believe that as a society, we need to be more careful in the words we use. I’m not arguing that we should sugar-coat the truth or curb criticism, but semantics matter.
Language is powerful — it can both corrupt and restore. If we choose our words with care, we can hope to do more of the latter, less of the former.
Karyn Simpson is a junior journalism and environmental studies major from Fair Oaks Ranch. She is the copy editor for the Lariat.