Words Can Hurt

February Newsletter Art

By Joe Diorio

I have said in jest in this newsletter that words hurt. The reality is that words can do far worse than hurt. They can cause stress and more serious health situations. 

In a report paid for by the National Science Foundation, Vanderbilt University Professor Ebony O. McGee says terms like “Asian fail” and “Black genius” are neither a joke or a compliment. Her research shows they are derogatory and marginalize those who are the targets of such terminology.  

“Asian fail” is in the Urban Dictionary and is defined as to not get an “A” in a class. While “Black genius” is not in the Urban Dictionary it is frequently used to insinuate that an individual is bright beyond a stereotype. Both are psychologically detrimental, Prof. McGee says.  

“Racialized labels foster marginalization, which can have negative effects on the body and the mind,” argues Prof. McGee. “Both of these racial groups endure emotional distress because each respond with an unrelenting motivation to succeed that imposes significant costs.” 

Prof. McGee understands this from personal experience, having worked as an engineer before her time as a college professor. She said she was the target of comments about her gender and race that undermined her abilities. 

In the report, she encourages coalition-building among racial groups in order to build psychosocial coping skills, as well as other strategies for dealing with the effects of stereotypes and labeling. 

From the “Squad Squad” Files 

Last month the White House said the State of the Union speech should be delivered “on time and on schedule.” One late night host mined that for humor to say the two terms were redundant. Well, not exactly. 

Oxford defines on time as being “punctual” or “in good time.” A third definition offered is “on schedule,” which Oxford also defines as “on time, as planned or expected.” 

Our language is rife with homonyms (words with the same spelling and pronunciation, but have different meanings), homophones (words with the same pronunciation, but different spelling and meanings), and homographs (words spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meanings), so it isn’t surprising that there could be multiple combinations of words that mean either the same thing or slightly different things.  

It’s a close call – closer than this year’s Super Bowl, for sure – but I recall a lesson from more than one teacher who said one should go with the first definition in the dictionary. By that lesson, then, if you use the first definition of “on time” (punctual), it appears there is a slight difference between “on time” and “on schedule.” Penalty flag to the late-night comic in this case. 

Going without words – priceless 

In early January MasterCard said it would stop using the name “MasterCard” in its graphic designs and just go with the interlocking circles. The company’s reasoning is that the image of the circles is well-known – enough so that the text is redundant. Nike and Target have similar tactics in their marketing. Nonverbal communication is a learned form of communications, growing out of a society’s culture. Since MasterCard has been around for 52 years, the company probably figures it’s enough a part of the culture to get cozy with us.  

And lastly 

A recent presentation by my colleague Mike Deas, “The Art of Logic in Language,” pointed to disconnects we commit when communicating, such as two signs at a motor vehicle inspection station. The first one tells car drivers to turn off their radios, yet the second sign says, “For More Information Tune to 107.5 on your radio.” His presentation reminded me of one of my favorite pet peeves: the sign in a restaurant bathroom that reads, “Employees Must Wash Hands.” Trust me, I have stood in that damn bathroom and no employee shows up to wash my hands. (Think about that one.) 

Let’s write carefully out there, people. 

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. You should tell your friends and colleagues about him

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