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    Safe Words

    By Derek Barnes–

    Have you ever wondered why some words, phrases, and concepts seem to be of the moment? Some stand the test of time, while others do not. We routinely retire, replace, and modify parts of language that no longer reflect the current and shared understanding of the majority. At what point do these transitions occur, and how do these changes serve our intentions or goals as human beings?

    We know that communication may be expressed as non-verbal or verbal. Fundamentally, language is the medium or system of communication that enables the transfer of information. It may be used to influence, organize, engage, and create. Language and its components become obsolete too. There are “dead” languages because the people or cultures that used a specific form of communication don’t exist today. Words and phrases also shape concepts and thinking that are no longer universally shared.

    There is no limit to the examples we can cite to analyze the human phenomenon of language. For example, most of us today don’t refer to people as oriental or colored. This was not true 50 years ago. When referencing American history, the subtle shift from “slaves” to being “enslaved” is now being used to describe a group of people owned in American industries that required human bondage and chattel. We distinguish unhoused versus homeless and have more choices to express a person’s gender identity than through the lens of having male and female reproductive organs.

    As people become more aware or “woke,” we add nuance and layers of new understanding that may need different ways to describe historical references, current truths and reality, or the desired state. Humans crave immediate gratification (easy fixes) to resolve difficult situations or take shortcuts to achieve the desired goal. Does distinguishing “slaves” versus “enslaved” change our collective understanding about the horrific practices and generational impact to people who were in bondage? These linguistic tactics can produce illusions that focus on superficial progress or optics rather than doing the work of changing the conditions that fix underlying problems. Social media provides limitless exchanges and interactions that amplify this tendency exponentially today.

    Sometimes there’s an intention to rename what is perceived as bad or negative (stigma) and a move toward something that has less baggage or is not as provocative. Some good examples are master bedroom versus primary bedroom or landlord versus housing provider. Cultural and generational perspectives are also crucial in reconciling stigma, as we see using homosexual, gay, queer, and same-gender loving within certain groups as self-identifiers.

    These changes may be subtle but have a way of seeping into the everyday language that is used to describe our experiences, define value, identify a point in time, or support our beliefs and intentions. Most certainly, there is power in language. In his recent book The Language Hoax, John McWhorter writes about the communications phenomenon. His supposition is that humans see things in remarkably similar ways despite the languages that different groups may use. 

    The use of diverse, prescriptive, or complex (structure) language does not equate to advanced intellect, engaging in more robust analysis, or driving deeper meaning. In other words, a different language or dialect doesn’t make us more interesting or novel. The lessons in the study of language teach us that our perceived differences are only variations of being the same. What appears to be clear in numerous studies is that the different ways in which we communicate can shape judgments and reality that ultimately support our desired experiences and need for shared culture.

    Derek Barnes is the CEO of the East Bay Rental Housing Association ( ). He currently serves on the boards of Horizons Foundation and Homebridge CA. Follow him on Twitter @DerekBarnesSF or on Instagram at DerekBarnes.SF

    Published on August 11, 2022