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.

16 responses to “Wordy

  1. Perfect! I love what Julie wrote about “impact.” Quintessential Julie. 😉

    Because I am quite the word nerd myself, as you are, and as so many bloggers are…

    And such a damn fine response to flutter’s coworker this is!

    (Oh, and BTW, we taught our kids the same thing about not liking a behavior versus a person. And here’s another one: the word “hate.” When the boys say, “I hate peas!,” we talk about how “hate” needs to be reserved for things that matter more than peas.)

  2. I’m with you completely on this.

  3. i read flutter’s post and it made me want to scream and cry at the same time!! i hate when people use a phrase thinking they are being funny or cute, when really, they are cutting to the very quick of someone’s soul. (and we’re not talking hate-peas kinda hate here) i wrote something awhile back about the impact of words – ironic now after julie’s comment about the word impact. but i feel that way sometimes: the words slam into me with such force that little shards of me are scattered, making walking around me barefoot a dangerous thing for the next few days!

  4. I agree with you on almost this entire post. However, as a member of the Grammar Police there is one clear error in your entry. We do exist and we prefer the moniker Grammar Police over Language Police (We won’t accept Grammar Pigs either, though Grammar Cops is an acceptable substitute).

  5. Very well written. I strive to be precise, straightforward with words when writing. I am no writer (and am probably on the Grammar Cop’s most wanted list), but I try.

    My children have been taught the same principle about saying “I don’t like”. They’ve also been taught “hate” is a strong word and rarely used. We do not hate people and dislike is the appropriate choice for things not favored.

    If we can do nothing else in life to help others, we can say kind words to them.

  6. I was thinking the other day how hard it is to accurately describe something, because all of the strong adjectives I know have been so overrused they are cliche. We live in a culture of superlatives (especially if you watch much television).

  7. I try so hard not to be In Uniform all the time for my job as Detective Chief Inspector for the Grammar Police (International Division).

    But my peeves. I just can. not. shut. them. down.

    Obviously creative use of punctuation does not rattle me. 😉 Germanization of words is okay as long as it is only done in a mocking smart-assed way and not to provide emphasis (one should use italics or bold for that).

    Oh RIGHT the post.

    Excellent address to the power of words, especially flutter’s situation. That was angering.

    Impact…my objection to this is not when it is used (rarely) metaphorically but when it is used lazily to compensate for the inability to distinguish between “effect” and “affect.”

    Words do, indeed, do real work.

    Great post!

    Using My Words

  8. beautifully said.

    I love me some good metaphors, but not those kind that that are so imprecise as to HURT people.

  9. But, Julie, I have to look up “affect” and “effect” every time I want to use one of them. Yes, I’m lazy!

    Emily, thank you for what you wrote about Flutter’s post. Sometimes it is all too easy to forget the power that some words have. I know I’m guilty of being imprecise in my use of language and now I’ll be more aware.

    And I’ll try not to claim I’m starving 3 hours after eating a large cheese pizza. That’s a situation I can, unfortunately, see myself encountering at some point in the future.

  10. Emily, thank you. Words are real in that they reflect actions, they produce memories and they hurt.

    The beget. Don’t they?

  11. um, they, not the.

  12. realitytesting

    Wow. Guilty on all counts. In my own writing, and even in Julie’s blog comments earlier today. Apparently, this is good food for thought…and evidently, it appears that I am simply starving.

  13. Thanks for the reminder. I am so careful about language when writing with a pen or writing an essay or paper. I should be the same way with blogs, but it is so easy to slap something together and send it floating into the blogosphere.

  14. words are more powerful than people think.

  15. Pingback: Lighter. Stay tuned for fluffy. « Wheels on the bus