The Implications of the Words We Say: Learning Linguistic Mindfulness

First, before reading the post below, please check out my most recent post to this From Fandom to Family blog of mine, which was a reblog from someone else’s WordPress blog: How I stopped worrying and learned to remove ableist language from my vocabulary.

I haven’t updated my blog in a while. This was saved in my drafts for ages and I decided to put the finishing touches on it and publish it today.

And please forgive my writing style below. For some reason, this time, I chose to write about the past in a pseudo-present tense, for effect.

I’m a small child attending an American public school, so of course we have to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Decades later, I’ll still remember the words. We did it — or at least heard it, even if we didn’t speak it — every morning for 13 years.

I pledge allegiance
to the flag
of the United States of America.

And to the Republic
for which it stands

One Nation
Under God

With Liberty, and Justice, for all.

I remember finding out what the word “Indivisible” means and realizing for the first time it is not the word “invisible”. As a child, “invisible”, meaning: Impossible to see; not visible was a word I’d learned. I’d learned what “invisible” meant many years before I learned the uncommon English word “indivisible” that meant: unable to be divided.

I think it took me a long time before I had my little personal epiphany and began to fully understand that the words in the pledge aren’t just sounds to chant but rather two complete sentences that are actually supposed to make sense. I remember thinking about the meaning of what I’d been reciting only years after having begun saying it on a daily basis. When I was 5-years-old, I didn’t know what I was doing.

In kindergarten, I was certainly not old enough to care about the meaning of words I was being required to say. I should not have been required to say those words. I do not like that my country continues the tradition of saying “The Pledge of Allegiance” in school each morning.

I’m attending Catholic Religious Education Classes as a kid, and it’s called CCD, although none of us know what those letters stand for, or why we don’t just call it Religious Education. One of the most often discussed religious figures is the Virgin Mary. I find myself embarrassed at age 14 that I didn’t realize Virgin wasn’t just part of her name/title or something very specifically Catholic. This is actually a descriptive term? This means she’s never had sex? Wow. To have gone this far in life and to not know what Virgin Mary means? That is unacceptable. Words like “virgin” have meanings and I should’ve been taught what it meant many years sooner. Age 14 was a bit late. Eighth grade? Why had no one explained the concept of virginity to me before now? If the “Virgin Mary” was going to be discussed in my presence for as long as I can remember, the meaning of “Virgin” should’ve been of some importance. I don’t like having used a word myself for years, not realizing I didn’t know what it meant.

We head away from the auxiliary building on the church grounds where the classrooms are, going over to the church and the chapel area where the confessionals are, because today is the day, as comes up once a year now, where it’s time to, as a class, confess our sins to the priest. They guide us through a brief presentation first about what confession is, how it’s a Sacrament, how we need to confess our sins, and what common examples of sins would be. I start to feel nervous, worried, anxious. I didn’t do any of the things on the list! Disrespecting my parents? Never, my abusive mother made sure I always respected her. My dad… was always so worthy of respect in comparison. Using “bad language” like “Oh my God,” or “What the hell?” also wasn’t something I’d ever do. I’d always say “Oh my Gosh,” or “What in the world?”. But still… if I had used the Lord’s name in vain… that’d have been breaking a commandment, right? Maybe I should just tell the priest I did that. Maybe I should lie in Confession so that I have something to say. I look back down at the long prayer written on a piece of paper that is now my hands. How am I supposed to memorize this whole Act of Contrition? Oh, we can look at it even once we’re alone with the preist? Great. I can relax a bit.

I don’t care that much that what I will say is true because the pressure is on. I need to say something. I need to act like I am a sinner. The exact sin I choose won’t matter. I try so hard to be a good person and here I am feeling guilty about lying in Confession. Because telling the truth does matter to me. Because I do care about the meaning of what I say, and what these lies will imply about me as a person, as well as what lying itself will mean about me.

I am sitting in my aunt’s house, playing a game of Scrabble. I look at the letters I have. Included among them are J, I, and P. That’s probably not how you spell the word I’m thinking of, though, right? “To jip”, meaning to deprive, or to cheat? I turn to my dad. “How do you spell ‘gyp‘?” I ask. I’m informed it’s spelled with a G and a Y. “What?” I’m confused. That’s an odd spelling for an English word. “It’s based on the word Gypsy,” I am told. (I soon learn it is derived from prejudiced popular perceptions of the Romani people as thieves and petty swindlers). I am a bit horrified that this word that I had used casually in the past has this particular… history, and spelling. I vow to avoid using the word in the future, if I can remember. It just feels so… racist.

But I don’t remember. It comes up naturally at one point, and then I realize what I’ve said and feel bad, for a moment. I feel guilty, my own sense of conscience remembering even if the language center of my brain didn’t.

When I hear the word used by others in the future, I am reminded of how so many people use so many words like these so casually, no longer usually actually referencing “gypsies”. I am unsure of how I feel about it. Language evolves, and what was once a hateful word is now just a word, right? But I still feel uncomfortable around the word, especially given the spelling.

My mother screams and yells, raging in a horrifying way toward me and my brother. “You’re a son of a bitch!!” she shouts at him in one moment, clearly an insult. In fact, it is obvious that it is one of the meanest/harshest insults she can think of, and she is only cursing in this way in her abusive attempt to wound him. Despite our tears and our racing, terrified heartbeats; despite our cowering up against a wall… only a few moments after she utters these particular words, we let out some small laughs. Did she realize what she just said? She doesn’t even notice our amusement at how crazy she is.

How crazy she is.

A craziness that wow, was actually mental illness? It is a year or so later now, and I look at my dad who is just as shocked as we are. When we called her “crazy” for all of those years, we had no idea it was even a possibility she had a truly diagnosable mental condition. I didn’t even learn about the existence of personality disorders or what in the world they were until after I was 17 years old and had taken her up on her ultimatum — the ultimatum that if my brother and I left the house with our father that night, we should pack a bag and give her our keys because we’d never be allowed back in her house.

I’m on tumblr years later, long before I’d join WordPress. It’s after I’ve been blogging on tumblr a bit about my childhood with a series of tumblr posts called: “My Crazy Mom and My Wonderful Dad”. I stumble across a “SJW” type post, as I more and more often do now, one that this time is informing readers that it is bad to stigmatize people with mental illness. To assume violence. To act like people who are mentally ill are morally inferior. That even just using the word “crazy” to describe behavior I don’t like, behavior that is wild and scary and abusive like what my mother would do to me… that this is a harmful, ableist, word.

I feel like they have a point. I need to stop calling her crazy. But it’s so hard to unlearn using the word “crazy” to describe unacceptable behavior. It is ingrained further down than “Gyp” ever was. It is a process. A slow, long, process to unlearn the word. But it is a process I feel it is worth taking. Because if my mother was not so afraid of the stigma of being “crazy”, maybe she would get help. Maybe I would have a mother again, instead of an abuser in my life who I feel forced to cut off all contact with, for my own well being. People with mental illnesses of any type, including any and all of the mental disorders my mother has, don’t deserve to be treated or looked at negatively for things they can’t control. It is unfair to them. “Crazy” doesn’t accurately describe what I mean to say anyway. If I had known a decade earlier that when I said my mom was crazy, what I meant was my mom was abusive and/or in need of some mental health treatment? Maybe things would’ve been better for me. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to live with that abuse. “Crazy” is a word that is often so unspecific it becomes meaningless.

Now, it even bothers me to hear a woman — or a female character in a work of fiction — apologizing for her own prior behavior by saying, “I was a bitch”. It’s too sexist to my ears. There are better ways to describe that you were wrong, and in which specific ways you were wrong, than using a gendered insult like that, even if it’s self-deprecating and not intended to wound. It’s hurting women as a whole every time the word is used in that way. At least, that’s how I see it.

It is still an ongoing process for me to become more mindful of ableism, bigotry, and other harmful things associated with certain words I grew up saying. The process will probably never end — I will always have ways in which I can improve in this area of my choices for vocabulary. But the more I consciously make an effort to remember marginalized groups and avoid hurting them with the words I say, the better a person I think I will become. And to me, that is a worthy goal.

4 thoughts on “The Implications of the Words We Say: Learning Linguistic Mindfulness

  1. Whoa. I’m so glad you wrote this. I think it’s super important to explore the ways in which our understanding of language develops, especially with respect to social justice issues. And talking about those moments is often hard, because it involves admitting that you used to be less on top on shit than you are now, and I think it’s unfortunate that so many people feel the need to pretend that these things are obvious when they *aren’t* obvious to people who haven’t been exposed to them yet.


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