Words, words, words!


I can’t remember when it first became evident to me that my mind was not alone in the universe I occupied; perhaps it wasn’t immediately clear to me that others, too, had thoughts and that they may well be different from my own. The Theory of Mind, as it’s now called, develops early in childhood and allows us to infer intentionality to others. What is not so apparent, however, is that my feeling about something -the meaning that I attribute to a word, or phrase, say- may differ from what someone else accepts. And that can lead to many problems as life unfolds.

Many years ago when I was in university, it seems to me we used to talk about the connotative vs the denotative aspects of a word and its meaning: connotation was the feeling invoked by a word or phrase, whereas denotation was its actual or literal meaning. The quintessential catchword example of the era was ‘cool’; there have been too many to count since then, I’m afraid. It’s just what happens to a language -it evolves laterally as well as longitudinally, as it were.

The problem with that, of course, is that for others, the connotative aspects of something may differ vastly from my own -if I even realized there was an unknown characteristic clinging to whatever word I may have chosen, that is. Usually, it is attributable to the context in which it is immersed; sometimes, though, it may be laid at the feet of the speaker who should have known better -or perhaps, who actually did

I remember sitting in one particularly esoteric and boring class on my first day in University. I had just emerged from years in high school where my humour, along with its attendant words, evidently differed markedly from those which usually adorned the staid halls of academe. When the professor asked me a question on that fateful day, I laughingly compared my inability to answer with an ethnic group whose very existence I’d only heard whispered at our lockers back in high school. In that particular setting, there may well have been some laughter, but on that day in the freshman class, there were only quiet and disgusted eyes that insisted on rolling up and down over my face. A friend later took me aside and explained how that had been insulting to the sensibilities of the class. In other words, ‘grow up’, was his advice: my first lesson in the exigencies of discursive memory -even if I had not yet fully understood those memories…

Over the intervening years I have tried to be sensitive to the possible different meanings attached to words -mine, as well as those of others around me- but the grounds of propriety seem to shift from time to time and place to place; the boundaries are sometimes confusing, even when I try to watch diligently for them. Like gifts, words have to be chosen carefully, and artfully wrapped.

And yet, however empathetically I approach communication, the experiences that the members of different societies and cultures bring with them are sometimes laced with minefields. So, I am still on the lookout for guidance, explanations – although at my age I may be coming at this a bit late.

An essay by Dalla Malé Fofana, a specialist and researcher in linguistics and discourse analysis at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, seemed like a good place to find some answers. https://theconversation.com/why-some-words-hurt-some-people-and-not-others-152159

Indeed, he quickly reminded me ‘that there are parts of our history — such as the transatlantic slave trade, the Holocaust or the repression of First Nations — that must be approached with respect and empathy, even when they are talked about in an effort to better understand them. Only those who have lived through these experiences can fully feel the pain and humiliation associated with certain words… Their mere evocation can bring back painful memories, buried deep in what is known as discursive memory… each context in which a term is used generates a particular perception in the person receiving it.’ How they’ve experienced it in the past, in other words.

The problem is that I may not have the same, or even vaguely similar, memories attached to it to steer me away from inadvertent offence. Sometimes I have to probe carefully. Empathetically.

I was at an academic conference some years before I retired, the moderator being a well-respected professor in his field. In fact, I suspect that many of us had attended because of his fame and the value of his research.

There was a cocktail reception at the end of the day, and while mingling with the crowd, I saw my colleague Julie huddling with a group of her friends in the corner. They were laughing and jostling each other, all the while gesticulating with their hands. I assumed they hadn’t seen each other for a while, but I hadn’t recognized anybody else I knew in the room, so I joined them.

“Julie,” I greeted her, and then, I suppose to acknowledge the fact I didn’t know any of her friends, I added “… And, uhmm, Ladies…” and looked at them for introductions. For some reason, their expressions hardened, and although they remained polite, their eyes patrolled my face like guards at a prison. I was duly introduced, but it was clear that I had interrupted something, and I felt quite awkward so I started to leave the group.  But Julie grabbed my hand.

“We were just discussing our famous moderator, G,” she said and the laughter started again. But it was clear I was not in on the joke, so Julie explained. “It was your use of the word ‘ladies’, G.” Her friend Donna rolled her eyes and giggled at that.

I stared at her, embarrassed confusion obviously written on my face.

Julie squeezed my hand. “Remember when he said ‘Ladies, ladies, ladies,’ and put his fingers to his lips for us to stop talking…? Like he was scolding little children?”

I nodded, still not really understanding

“Do you really think he would have said the same thing to the men in the audience, G?”

“But… I mean what should he have called you…?”

It was Donna’s turn. “The term ’Ladies’ has a double meaning for many of us, G,” she explained. “As in ‘Ladies of the night’, or even the pejorative ‘Ladies night’ where we are reputed to congregate somewhere to giggle and gossip and act silly, and like…well, act like ladies are apparently supposed to act.”

Another of the group, whose name I’ve forgotten, reminded us that the moderator had actually started to say ‘Girls’ but the woman standing beside him at the podium had glared at him, so he’d changed it to ‘Ladies’…”

Life is for learning, and so I merely nodded my agreement that the moderator had been talking down to them for sure. I didn’t mention that I had actually started to say ‘Girls’  to them, but had thought better of it at the last moment.

I still don’t know how I should have addressed them. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we still live in two solitudes…

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