Breaking Up With Words

A small sign with End sits atop a bigger sign with FRIENDSHIPHappy Chinese, er, Lunar New Year!

I still slip up on occasion because I’ve called it “Chinese New Year” for most of my life. When the mind reaches for words, it’s not surprising that the most familiar are the most accessible.

There’s more to this habit than wanting what’s familiar, though. I reach for words with emotional resonance. The phrase “Chinese New Year” moves me, reminds me, makes me happy, whereas the more inclusive “Lunar New Year” is merely syllables.

But what if the familiar becomes uncomfortable? Even though my heart prefers “Chinese New Year,” that phrase leaves out the Korean and Vietnamese cultures, among others, and no longer aligns with my intentions or world view. And although “Lunar New Year” is the clear winner, it feels like I’ve broken up with an old friend.

I suspect that a twinge of grief underlies certain shifts in language, for inclusive language in particular. Even wholehearted support of respectful, compassionate, and mindful “people words” might be accompanied by a feeling of loss. We’ve invested more in mother/father than parent, woman/man than person, wife/husband than spouse, and using the unbiased version can feel flat.

And it’s OK. It doesn’t mean we should run back to relationships which no longer serve us. Those words have already been given a chance, and look what they’ve done to us, to the world.

Form relationships with new words. Aim for equality and not just diversity. We need to evolve language so that more of us matter.

How has language been treating you?

In other news:
  • “Conscious Language at Work” Q&A Series: Our second interview in this series features pediatric social worker Mia Scanlon, who works with families whose child has a hematology or oncology diagnosis. Find out how she communicates mindfully to help people cope with illness and death, including her thoughts on euphemisms, cognitive distortions, and full disclosure.
  • ACES 2016: Yes, friends, I will be in Portland come March for the American Copy Editors Society conference. I’m on an amazing panel with lexicographer Kory Stamper (also the keynote speaker), ad rep Dilane Mitchell, and copy editor Colleen Barry, and we’ll be discussing “Sexist Creeps: How to Catch and Fix Sexist Language.” Rumor has it that we will be wearing aviators.
  • National Grammar Day: ACES has invited me to be a judge for this year’s National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest, which is happening around March 4. In 2012, I placed second with this haiku: “Tiny hyphen mark / marries words, charms editor. / Turns out to be lint.” It’s always a pleasure to see what fellow grammar-lovers come up with each year. Remember to use the hashtag #grammarday when you tweet your haiku.

With understanding,

Karen Yin


Photo by Tinou Bao used under CC BY 2.0

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