Welcome to our new feature where we come to the defence of language and words. We intend to investigate, poetically and playfully, how our care or negligence of words affects our actions and relationships. This is our dictionary!
Too often we observe how words are misused, overused, misunderstood, co-opted, and increasingly censored, whether by governments, institutions, corporations, or anti-everything groups. In fact, all of us are, at different times, responsible for twisting words, regardless of which side of an argument we may be on. Whether deliberately or by omission.
Yet words matter. While they can condemn, they can celebrate, they can exclude, and make visible, they can imprison or liberate, they can destroy, they can build, they can hurt us and they can comfort us, they can obscure, and they can enlighten.
Clarity of language is clarity of thought. George Orwell, who connected political chaos with the decay of language, insisted that clarity was not frivolous or only the purview of professional writers, rather, that thinking clearly was “a necessary first step towards political regeneration.”
When language gets impoverished, watered down, or weakened, so do our values, our ideas and the impact of our actions. As Wendell Berry wrote, “once we allow our language to mean anything that anybody wants it to mean, it becomes impossible to mean what we say.” Our choice of words must aim for clarity, precision and inclusion.
We are living in a time when principles as basic as human rights are being questioned. And the assaults usually begin on language. And it is effective. The growing cleansing of what some deem offensive in literature, especially in children’s books, is deeply troubling. Are we not trying to disguise the truth about our world?
And if we take a closer look at the language used by NGOs and related institutions, as an example, it’s either full of jargon, vague and full of prefabricated business-speak, or it’s overly legalistic or academic. Such language excludes and obscures – and in the process, we harm our own causes.
So we believe that we should not leave the care of language to chance. To begin with, we should not abandon the words co-opted by the world of publicity, power hoarders, or the blue-white-green-diversity-washing tactics. We must reclaim those words and infuse them with their intended meaning.
There are also times when we simply don’t have the words. We either don’t know what words to use or perhaps they do not exist in our language and new ones need to be created. ‘Naming is diagnosis,’ Rebecca Solnit said. If we do not have the words needed to describe harm done to us—think, for example, for small children victims of sexual abuse—how can we even begin to identify solutions?
And we must also resist the urge to “paint over” language that tackles difficult and painful issues with a positive spin. Changing our focus from bad news to good news doesn’t change the reality of the world we live in.
So how will we do this?
This is first and foremost an invitation: we want to collectively create a new language to guide us through these times of chaos, confusion and grief. Such a language should help us see clearly so that we may understand what are our roles and responsibilities.
Each month, we will be sharing some of the words we want to reclaim or new ones we discover. While we call this new feature a dictionary, our definitions will not be ‘official’, rather something more akin to a word’s story, or an interpretation of a word’s deeper meaning, or even aspiration.
We recognise that spoken language is not the only means of communicating and we do not intend here to over intellectualise language. And the concerns we raise are not exclusive to the English language - we are writing as non-natives for a mostly non-native audience, so we intend to bring in examples from other languages, and show how many of our languages share deeper connections.
For many of us, the language we use is political, but that does not mean it cannot also be poetic, evocative and playful, in fact, it should be. But in order to do that, we must do the work of care.
Orwell said that for most politicians, language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in one moment, but one can, at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase … into the dustbin where it belongs.”
So, what words enchant you, anger you, or bore you to tears? What do you not have words to describe? Which words should we throw into the dustbin and which ones should we defend with valour and creativity? We want to hear your suggestions. Any language welcome!
Send them here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Words, Veronica Yates
Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes
George Orwell (1903 - 1950) was an English novelist, essayist, and critic famous for his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), the latter a profound anti-utopian novel that examines the dangers of totalitarian rule.
Rebecca Solnit is an American writer, historian, and activist. She is the author of twenty books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster, most recently The Mother Of All Questions.
Wendell Berry (born in 1934) is an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. Dubbed the ‘poet of rural America,’ he has devoted his life to campaigning for local food and land stewardship.
[Sources: Authors’ own and Wikipedia]
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
Why I Write, George Orwell
What I Stand for is What I Stand On, Wendell Berry
“Salman Rushdie decries ‘absurd censorship’ of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books, with words like ‘fat’ removed,” Danica Kirka and The Associated Press, Fortune, 19 February 2023. Read here.
Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit
“It’s not always easy to be comfortable in the space created by open questions. It’s tempting to hide in small rooms built from quick answers.”― Merlin Sheldrake
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” — Anais Nin
“Words should not seek to please, to hide the wounds in our bodies, or the shameful moments in our lives. They may hurt, give us pain, but they can also provoke us to question what we have accepted for thousands of years.” ― Nawal El Saadawi
“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into an idea, then into more tangible action.”— Audre Lorde