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Student debates over the power of words

Owen Dufka

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Words have power. Argue against this if you like, but anyone who has had anything written about them will stringently disagree with you. When one desires to use the power of words to their favor, one must first realize that is not the sounds of the words which have power, but the meaning we assign to them. Society creates compliments, insults and names, by assigning a word to a new or altered meaning. This is extremely evident if one looks at a specific phrase or word from both sides of any given social divide.

Let’s take “redneck” for example. Though it can be used as an insult, it is not attached to any hyper-negative connotation. According to the Oxford Living Dictionary, “redneck” is defined as a sometimes, or often, disparaging term used to describe a “Working-class white person from the southern U.S., especially a politically reactionary one.” Up until the early nineteen-hundreds, “redneck” saw little use in the U.S. as a whole, instead the term “cracker” was used.

It was only in 1921 when the phrase “redneck” came into popularity. And on May 19, 1921, coal miners of West Virginia, all of them immigrants and most of them not sharing a common language, marched on Blair Mountain in protest.

They were marching for the right to organize and get paid in currency instead of credit at the company store. As a sign of solidarity, these union men tied red bandanas around their necks to show that though they may be from all points around the world, and though they didn’t have old family roots, they stood together. For some time after, the term “redneck” was, at least to the working class, a compliment. To be called a “redneck” was to be told you were seen as part of a brotherhood who would fight to preserve other’s rights as Americans.

In time the mining companies and upper class society managed to twist the term “redneck” into the derogatory slur we know today. Even so, there are still places in central and southern U.S. where if you call someone a “redneck” they will smile, shrug and agree with you, silently glowing with pride.

Call someone from our generation, born and raised outside of certain areas, a “redneck” and they will argue vehemently against this classification. Depending on the person, they might just punch you. This is a perfect example of altering connotations, but not definitions, depending on social divide.

There are plenty of other words and terms with multiple or altered meanings, and one should not assume that the evolution of language or specific terms is a bad thing. Often the social change indicated by the change of words or meanings is positive. Take the term “police officer” for example.

When we describe officers of the peace, we say it with a gender neutral term. “Policeman” on the other hand sounds slightly unbalanced, almost as if it were missing something or not conveying the right message. The reason for this is simple, it is half discrimination and it is not sending the right or complete message. This is because the notion of a “policeman” is outdated to our society.

Law enforcement agencies have joined the rest of the country in that if they have an all-male staff, anyone observing them will think there is something terribly wrong. So as a result of a social evolution in gender equality and acceptance of women in power rolls, we now use “police officer” instead of “policeman.”

Some say that calling this sort of change progress towards true equality is a dangerous error in judgment and should be condemned. This is the argument of blowhards and malcontents. Granted, if looked at from a certain light, one could compare this change in word choice to the changing of plates on a stolen car.

From a certain crazy point of view anything good can be seen as bad and this is exactly the case with language.

In fact it can be argued that a fast change in language is the best thing for promoting equality. As the more inclusive our language becomes, the more included everyone will feel and through this true unity, equality and understanding can be achieved.

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Student debates over the power of words