I sent the lovely Julie an email, suggesting a topic for an upcoming Hump Day Hmmm. I did this not out of the goodness of my heart but out of laziness. You see, I had just written a post on the topic. I suggested to Julie that we write about the impact music has had on our lives.
“Cool,” Julie replied. “Except I can’t use the word impact unless describing the crash of an asteroid.”
Leave it to an editor…
She’s right, you know. Of course, she is. “Impact” is indeed used to describe the act of collision. Over the years, however, it has taken on a more metaphorical meaning. People now use it not just to describe the actual collision but to describe the effect something has upon them. In other words, if I use the word “impact,” I am calling on your mental image of a collision and asking you to apply the effect of a collision to the present situation. I am trusting you to translate that metaphor.
It has become such common parlance that we do not even think about the metaphorical connection to a physical state (much like how I just used the word “connection”). The word “impact,” in other words, carries with it all the times it has been used previously, and listeners apply all the past meanings to the present use.
We rely on these metaphors all the time in language. No one actually “weaves” a tale, but we sort of figure people know that. When you hear someone speak of weaving a tale, you may not even think about actual weaving anymore, but the metaphor is hard at work, and your busy little mind is applying the physical act of weaving to the tale-telling at hand.
I like metaphors. They are comfortable to me. I like words that work hard to describe exactly what they are saying. “Impact” works for me because it is a specific reference and it is precise.
What is dislike are cheap metaphors. Especially cheap, imprecise metaphors. Ones that rely on hyperbole.
“I was robbed.” Well, you weren’t, really. In this case, the word “robbed” only works if you apply it with a conscious acknowledgement that you are using inappropriate hyperbole. In other words, you might get away with it if you get rejected by Mensa because you are applying a certain amount of self-mocking acknowledgement that the metaphor is inappropriate. If you claim to have been robbed when you pay too much for something, the two things you are comparing are pretty similar. You’re just exaggerating.
Where’s the grace in that?
There’s no crime in being imprecise. There are no language police who will hunt you down if you claim to be “starving” three hours after eating a large cheese pizza, although it does reflect a certain disregard for the fact that real people are actually starving. It is, however, undignified to continually ratchet up the English language. It is much like giving antibiotics all the time. Sooner or later, they lose their efficacy. Every now and then, let’s understate things a little.
There are times when our use of words can reflect a tremendous insensitivity. An undershirt with no sleeves is not a “wife beater.” It is an undershirt with no sleeves. Perhaps you do believe that a certain economic and geographic demographic is filled with fat men sitting around in sleeveless undershirts calling “B-tch, bring me another beer.” I, however, do not. And to call an undershirt a “wife beater” is to take the real power away from those words.
We need those words to have power because they describe something terrible. They describe something that traumatizes families (across economic and geographic lines, by the way). Leave those words alone. Find another inaccurate and inappropriate metaphor.
And, if you want to use the word “r@pe” to describe anything short of horrific sexu@l violence, go read Flutter’s post.
Words do real work. I try hard to respect the work they do because I know they can hurt people. When we taught Zachary to say “I don’t like that” instead of “I don’t like you,” we were teaching him more than a pronoun swap. We were teaching him to be sensitive to other people’s feelings. Flutter’s co-worker could use a little help in that department.
It is not about political correctness. WORDS DO REAL WORK. Words are beautiful and strong and precise. You can really use words to hurt someone else.
But it says a lot more about you if you try not to.