Noble: The words we choose

Last summer, I completed an intensive speech therapy program and learned to speak for a second time. My stutter was first recognized in kindergarten, and even after several years of speech therapy, I continued to stutter.

Upon learning I was attending a program, many questioned the severity of my stutter. What these people didn’t know is that much in the way that Winston Churchill, who also stuttered, memorized his speeches to get around the problem, I often memorized words for casual conversation. I was a covert stutterer — not an entirely successful one, as my moments of stuttering revealed, but overall reasonably talented at changing my words when necessary. And after the program, it is perhaps accurate to say that my political beliefs are more likely to hold me back in a career in politics than an ability to speak fluently.

As a stutterer, I have had some encounters with insensitivity. I have gotten held up on my own name and hometown. I have been mistaken for being nervous. Those with speech impediments do not receive as much ridicule as other groups, but the label stutterer remains instructive. We use it in every day conversation — we jokingly ask those who are tongue-tied if they have a stutter. But I don’t find this offensive. Why? Because we live in a civilized society — we are generally accommodating of those with actual stutters, much in the way that we treat those with intellectual disabilities compassionately.

We more frequently demean our words by our lack of precision in using them than we disrespect people with disabilities.

It makes little sense to abandon labels in the name of political correctness. We need to acknowledge that words have meaning — often clear and distinct ones — and political correctness often does them a disservice. The repeated way in which we water down, couch and abuse our words has caused them to grow tired or, at best, ambiguous. We should not use language we find offensive, but I think one of my professors put it best when he told us, “not to use words that disguise our meaning.” Even if the words are harmful, they are not as destructive as the greater trend currently reducing words to meaningless letters on a page.

What is most disturbing is the fact that innocent, but important words are often the first to fall.

For example, take liberalism. The so-called liberalism of the New Left is quite different from that of my grandfather’s New Deal generation, which was distinct from that of the 19th century and earlier. Liberal has gone from meaning enabling individual agency to promoting equality of outcome. Ideas, of course, can change over time, but nowadays the changing definitions seem to reflect more than just new world views. Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh lecture on family values, but their actions do little to offer an inspiring example. We are told by President Obama that we need to come together while his Congress promotes a partisan bill. Slowly, the words they choose lose their meanings.

Ultimately, we have a choice. We can be afraid to speak about problems — including growing national debt, exploding entitlements and illegal aliens — that might offend some. Or we can be loyal to the meanings of words and unafraid to state the facts, however unsettling they may be and actually begin to address substantive problems.

Speech therapy taught me how to not change my words. Before last summer, I thought making last minute word alterations enhanced my efficiency when speaking. As it turns out, they slowed me down, poorly disguising the problem while dancing around it. I am now able to say both what I want and need to say, and I am better for it. Society could benefit from the same lesson.

Lauren Noble is a junior Pierson College.

Comments

  • Tree Hugger

    Don’t call them illegal aliens. People aren’t illegal. Call them… undocumented immigrants.

    Thanks.

  • Yalie

    This column is excellent. Thanks for writing it.

  • yalemom

    While I like this article very much, I do not understand one comment;

    “Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh lecture on family values, but their actions do little to offer an inspiring example.”

    Lauren, please explain how Sarah Palin’s actions fall short of good family value examples.

    Are you suggesting her daughter’s young pregnancy or having sex out of wedlock are bad examples? Or are there other examples you are talking about?

    Palin has a beautiful family, she is an awesome-strong-woman/role model, and seems to be a great wife. She provides for her family…she loves this country and even has a son defending it.

    If it is for reasons I stated above, then here is where I have to disagree with you.

    As a mother myself, I have spent countless years teaching my kids right from wrong, moral values, and our faith/religion. They have both disappointed me. So is it my fault?

    I also taught my kids FREE WILL, and consequence.

    I fail to see how you can hold someone’s poor decision over their parent’s head.

  • What???

    Tree hugger….if you are in this country ILLEGALLY….NeWs FlAsH…you are an illegal immigrant…not undocummented!!!! Wow, really??!!

  • Eskimo

    I took the same program a number of years ago… I used to do the same thing you did, and realize that’s why so often I wasn’t making myself clear… totally agree with society being the same way… any wonder why there’s such a lack of communication? Great article… thanks.

    TreeHugger… you’re doing exactly what Lauren is talking about… someone who is not naturalized and is from a different country (this applies anywhere not just in the US) is called an alien… if they are here illegally, then they are an illegal alien… that’s clearer than calling them an undocumented immigrant, which doesn’t show that the person really is here illegally.

  • alum

    Not only thoughtful and well-written, but right on. The way you make your argument personal is powerful and, I might add, quite brave. Good job.

  • FailBoat

    Illegal immigrants are people who have immigrated illegally, just as illegal hunters are those who are hunting illegally.

  • Egalitarian

    To #1: Whether the law on immigrants is right or wrong, people who become illegal aliens choose to break the law. It’s not the same as slapping a racial or sexual slur on someone because of a demographic that they were born into through no choice of their own. If I had walked into a bar and had a beer two years ago, I would have been an illegal underage drinker. I believe that the law in question is unjust, discriminatory, and unconstitutional, but I would still have been violating the law.

  • Egalitarian

    To #3: How about the fact that Palin’s actions as governor caused so many ethics complaints that she became unable to govern?