Why words matter

In July 2006 I gave birth to my first son, in August my sister had her daughter and in September, my brother’s son was born.

My nephew and my son were healthy and have grown up achieving above-average results at school and in sports, winning various awards each year. My niece was born with a rare congenital condition and chromosomal abnormality. She is different from her cousins and this has been difficult for my sister, especially when certain developmental milestones come along.

Besides the hurt that the cousins’ achievements invariably bring about (although their aunt is the first to cheer them on) I have seen her flinch at certain words thrown around in casual conversation — “dumbass”, “stupid”, “idiot”, “retard”, “slow”, “special” — things people say without thinking, often to make fun of others who do not have disabilities. Some words, clearly, should be consigned to the scrapheap of history. 

On the other hand, my colleague with a disabled son tends towards the approach of reclaiming and owning offensive language, for instance by sharing family in-jokes. Other words in history — such as “queer” — have been similarly reclaimed, she reckons, but crucially by the affected community themselves, which is how the excellent Netflix documentary Crip Camp can get away with its title. 

The two mothers have different ways of reacting to the situations they find themselves in.

A few weeks ago, when the word “paralysed” appeared in one of our headlines to indicate “frozen”, another colleague pointed it out and we had a discussion about our need to be aware of words that could cause harm or offence.


Our outgoing editor-in-chief Sipho Kings tweeted about our discussion and received a backlash for it. Some of it was startling in its vitriol — I will never get used to the way people are prepared to be so base on such public forums — but let us just go with the mildest criticism, which was that it was “OTT” for us to do this introspection.

Perhaps to the ordinary person it is an extreme reaction to the use of this common metaphor, a step too far in the direction of politically correct, way too woke.

But, for us in the media, it should be a part of everyday conversation. As Sipho said, a way “to dig into the conscious/subconscious biases that we reflect”. It is evolution. As part of defending human rights, upholding democracy, giving the marginalised a voice and telling stories from the fringes, words are very much our business. It is our responsibility to be aware of how words can cause harm, perpetuate certain narratives and stereotypes, give life to conspiracy theories and fake news and how words can be used against people.

Consider these words, for instance: “non-whites”, “Europeans only”, “Juden verboten”, “moffie”, “binnet”, “witch”, “China virus” or “corona jihad”, among endless others.

Many readers will be old enough to remember the derision gender activists experienced during the 1980s, when feminists suggested not all chairmen were men, or not all housewives women, and asked for gender-neutral terms to be used in official language. By 2021, we accept the term “chair” or “chairperson”, generally without feeling as if we have been robbed of eloquence. 

Err on the side of caution

Our job is to err on the side of caution, to consider all views as much as is possible and to have the difficult debates. We tell the public about them because it is in their interest to know that we are continually striving to be better at what we do.

A quadriplegic friend, who used the “paralysed” metaphor herself this week in a Facebook post, said: “Personally I have no problem with anyone using the word in its proper context, be that metaphorically or literally, but I know not everyone feels that way, and I’ve always been of the thinking that if one can be kind, one should.”

The angry commentators on Twitter could perhaps think about that before spewing all their unnecessarily unkind, sometimes poisonous, words to show their disagreement on a subject. One day they may have to eat them. 

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Leizl Eykelhof
Leizl Eykelhof is a subeditor at the Mail & Guardian

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