Words: Sticks and Stones? Or Shaping How We See Ourselves?

A friend once told me, “Words are nothing but frequencies in the air. If you don’t give them meaning, they won’t mean a thing.” Ever since he said that, I try to live my life as such.

This was a response to a blog post I made asking whether “whore” should be the “w-word.”  

“Words are only words” is great advice if you can pull it off. But most can’t. And really, words affect us all, whether we realize it or not.

As it turns out, language directs thought.

In the 1930s two anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, learned that the Hopi Indians had no words to distinguish among the past, present, and future. Yet English uses a variety of tenses to describe specific points in time. Americans are intensely time-sensitive. Hopis? Not so much.

The anthropologists concluded that words are more than labels. Language affects how we see the world, ourselves, and how we behave.

Women are more likely to respond to a help wanted ad if the job description is “mail carrier” and not “mailman.”

In fact, we use male terms to describe humanity so much – man, mankind, brotherhood, fellowship – that when people are asked to think of a person, a man comes to mind.

When women or people of color are called words that are disrespectful and demeaning, they – along with everyone else – can internalize the notions, experiencing the words as reflecting some sort of real reality: They aren’t worth quite as much as others.

Words like whore or slut are especially powerful because women’s sexuality has long been connected to profound shame. The n-word takes African-Americans back to a time of degradation and dehumanization.

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can also hurt us when they dig deep into the unconscious psyche of indignity and humiliation.

Georgia Platts

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on November 10, 2010, in feminism, gender, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I agree with you no matter how much you try not to let others affect you, sometimes it does. I got teased a lot as a child for being poor, and lots of other stuff, so I see myself now as a parent working extra hard to make sure my daughter has, so she doesn’t have to hear things I heard. I also moved her from the Midwest where there is still racial tension so she could have more opportunity, and not have a low self-esteem because a few ignorant people want to say mean things. It takes a lot of practice to let words not affect you. Even when you think you can handle it, sometimes it hurts. My step-mom recently made me feel like an awful mom, even though I work my tail to the bone, I will never be good enough in her eyes, so she tries to tear me down ever chance she gets.

  2. Hannah McDonald

    I agree that language and thought are overwhelmingly connected. We wouldn’t think half the things we do if we didn’t have words to sum up why we think what we do! I think that a lot of the gender names (mankind, brotherhood, etc.) come from the fact that our “founding fathers” of many nations and expeditions are those of men. While I am completely positive that women had a LOT to do to shape our history, why do men only get recognized?

  3. Thank you the more of us who open up and let others know that we count too when names are called and no one has a corner on being hurt or insulted by names the more we all will be treated with respect we ALL deserve. As the founder of an organization that is fighting for equality for ALL it is inportant that we realize every human being is entitled to the same human rights as every other human being regrdless of the past. We can’t do much about the past but we certainly can do much about the present!

  4. Yuxing Zheng(R.Splitter EWRT 1B)

    “Language affects how we see the world, ourselves, and how we behave.” Definitely, language totally makes a huge difference in every single detail in our daily life. I am a Chinese, and I had an experience of being called Chinaman when I was playing basketball in Stanford University, a place that I had admired because I thought Stanford was a University full with well-educated people; however, after being called Chinaman (I could easily tell the aggression and insult of this word when the African-American man yelled it out to me), the good impression of Stanford had been changed even though I knew that THE man’s words did not mean that all the people in Stanford would say that. This is how A word affected me. Also, I like the example you put. (Women are more likely to respond to a help wanted ad if the job description is “mail carrier” and not “mailman.”) This is like that people used to call firefighters “firemen,” which implicitly excluded women from this Awesome profession. Good point! I think People should really consider what to say since those words might hurt others.

  5. I was the first one to comment and my line was this
    “You are absolutely right – just ask anyone at whose expense “a name” is used. ”
    You are further proof that it is easy for those doing the calling or not bothered by it but for those destroyed – it is altogether another story.
    I am sorry you were hurt as a child but like me – it made you a sensitive and caring soul who no doubt thinks before hurting others.
    Best wishes!

  6. People might not think the words they are calling people are hurtful, but they are. I was called horrible names in elementary school that I will not post on here, and it changed my life completely. I became very guarded and shy, I worried about what people thought of me and thought that everyone hated me. When someone calls someone else a bad name, it can do some serious damage. Especially for young children, since they are still developing and figuring out who they are. Being called certain names can in fact change your life forever and not for the better.

  7. Great point Jamie- maybe it is about time that someone asks those of us who are affected by this and then accepts outr answers .
    Let’s see if we are allowed our own feelings! Up to now we have been told – no- its not the same!
    I totally agree with you – promise me you will NEVER let anyone back you out of that ! Stand your ground and I will rest easy that we will have a better breed of woman coming up!

  8. I think this is a great one. I think it is also interesting when we speak of objects “she” is usually used. For example, “she runs great”, or, “she is a beautiful car.” But when we talk about humans we say, “mankind”, or, “all men are created equal.” As far as words are concerned I to think that we may believe we are not affected by them, but deep down they hurt and words sometimes can hurt worse than physical pain.

  9. Considering women are constantly demeaned and objectified and our politicians are treated unequally to our males and if you look at the way our females are depicted in our media and in rap musice- I really don’t see how anyone can logically claim
    “Both whore and the b-word, I wouldn’t say are used exactly in the context of the n-word”

    further to say “A person can only internalize things for so long. ” that would refer to the use of the “N” word which refers to hold down the people of color and is not longer done openly however we are still openly degrading women and using these words prove it.
    In fact, my original comment was sensored to protect everyone but women which proves my point- its open season on women and we protect everyone elses sensabilities.

    I want to know why my open honest feelings might be an affront to anyone but calling me a bitch or a whore is tolerable?

    • I welcome your honest and uncensored feedback, it is definitely needed. I do understand, without a doubt the horrors that women face and the abuse that women face every day. I only say that the w-word and the b-word aren’t used in the exact context as the n-word because on one hand, the b-word and w-word is sexism and the n-word is racism. Women, who wish, can hide being a woman by wearing baggy clothes, or taking testosterone pills, and choosing their sexual orientation, on the other hand, one cannot hide being African American. I don’t want to give off the impression that being a woman does not have its issues because it does, they are just not the exact issues that African Americans face, although many are similar issues. Sexism and racism does exist. Using the n-word is done very openly. I really can detect it because I am African American, as you will know sexism exist because you are a woman. My argument is to say they are not exactly the same. Racism and sexism can be noted as a ton of feathers and a ton of bricks; they both weigh the same.

    • To freemenow: Just fyi, I don’t allow hostility in my classroom or on my blog. In both cases I expect people to present their differing opinions, but it must be done respectfully. And I won’t allow the n-word at all on this blog.

  10. I once heard a quote from Ernest J. Gaines, it stated, “Words mean nothing, action is the only thing, doing, that’s the only thing.” I believe this is very similar to the quote that of your friend. I do believe that words mean something because, although the characteristics of derogatory words are irrelevant, the are considered arbitrary because the only people who believe them are the people who are saying them. You gave reference to African Americans and the n-word; although that word does not mean a thing to me, a group of persons used it to dehumanize and justify specific, malicious behaviors. Both whore and the b-word, I wouldn’t say are used exactly in the context of the n-word but the concept is the same because both of those words are used to degrade women. We must understand words, especially if they are aimed at us, because if we are oblivious to the name calling, we can definitely be affected negatively. A person can only internalize things for so long. You are right when you say that, “Words are only words,” if you can pull it off. This is the hard task. It is very difficult to pull it off all the time but for less demeaning terms (depending on the person), it is very possible.

    • I do think that the power of words can be lessened with effort, but words can get into our psyche in ways that we aren’t concious of, making them that much more difficult to overcome.

  11. First off thank you for using that, I feel honored 🙂

    Rather interesting what anthropologists found. Guess some things are just easier said than done. Though life wouldn’t be as interesting if there’s no challenge in our lives, eh?

    Thank you for posting 🙂

  12. You are absolutely right – just ask anyone at whose expense “a name” is used.

    What bothers me however is how women are easy targets and no one and no law protects them. Case in point: Imus was fired for called some innocent women Nappy headed Ho’s. Most people only noticed the racism, but not the sexism. It was the “nappy” that got them fired. “Ho” should have been enough, too!

    In my opinion the sexual slavery of women since the beginning of time, and which still continues in the form of sex trafficking right now – “ho” represents the objectification of women on the whole. This objectification is just as nasty, just as degrading a term to females as the “N” word is to people of color or any other derogatory terms used toward a group of persons.

    As a survivor of child incest, teen rape and marital rape because those who used me thought of me as an object – nothing more than a cunt, bitch or ho to be used, slapped about and screwed – I have earned the right to feel the sting of these terms.

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