The F Word: The Power of Language

The Power of Language

We’ve all heard it said before: “man up,” “that’s so gay,” “don’t be such a girl….”  And for the most part, it just seems like pieces of our language, phrases that mean no harm.  You pick these words up in middle-school, and they become a part of your vocabulary in the same way that SAT prep words and the lines to your favorite songs do.

You’ve seen me say before that “no matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”  Not to get too communication major on you, but language is the entire basis of our culture.  It’s how we communicate, how we get a handle on the things we want and need.  It’s how we provide social contact for ourselves, and help for others.  Without language, our society would be an incredibly lonely one: we wouldn’t be able to know or be close to anybody.

So it only makes sense that of course these phrases mean something, however insubstantial and meaningless they may seem.  They all came from somewhere, from a more sexist, racist, hateful world than the one we currently live in.  They’re reminders of a time when Mad Men were real, and somehow managed to trickle down into our everyday language all these years later.

Without our ever meaning for them to, phrases like “man up,” have an impact on our culture, and the way we view our roles in society.  We say “man up,” because at one time, women couldn’t be expected to handle anything beyond the house-duties.  We say “that’s so gay” because being gay was (and in some parts of society, still is) considered to be an awful thing, something to be ashamed of.

Changing our language seems small, especially when there are bigger problems like marriage and pay equality to be concerned with, but language is our basis.  It’s where we start from each day, and unless it matches our beliefs, we can’t be expected to move forward.

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  • KateAdam Florken

    Adam and I actually have talked about this a lot lately. We both frequently say things that sublimely imply attitudes we don’t really believe. We have a boy dog, Deacon, who acts a bit wimpy. Instead of barking to get your attention, he cries and whines ALL the time! We’ve both become guilty of telling him, “Deacon… quit being a princess!” or “Come on dude, man up and stop the crying!” What we mean is, “You are being annoying right now and there is no reason to cry.” But our words are implying, “Girls are whiny princesses that cry all the time.”

    We’ve discussed it and that obviously isn’t how either of us feel, and yet, the language is SO engrained in our culture that those phrases just slip out. So, we’re both trying to make a conscious effort to stop it now … before we have kids and end up imparting those stereotypes on a daughter accidentally. Great post!


    • Jenn @ Business, Life & Design

      Oh! I had this same thought about my dog. He’s so wimpy about getting into wet grass and I tell him to stop being a “princess.” And I guess for a while I thought it was ok, because it wasn’t like “stop being a woman” and a “princess” is a very specific case of a person who is frequently raised to feel special and pampered. But now that I think more on it, I don’t say “stop being a prince” so there’s definitely a sexist element in there.

      • KateAdam Florken

        YES! Precisely. We’ve actually tried to make more of an effort to use “prince” to refer to him if he is being high maintenance like that. The problem is, high maintenance doesn’t JUST apply to females, but the language surrounding how we communicate that sure implies that. I guess the moral is that we can probably convey the same frustrations or messages and get around the sexist elements that have been built into our vocabulary — but, it takes a deliberate effort to do so.

        • Jenn @ Business, Life & Design

          I’d like to thumbs up this, but oh right. We’re not on Facebook. :P

    • Kiersten McMonagle

      It’s definitely something we all do, and I know I’ve done it before and still do sometimes. It’s something I want to be more conscious of though, because like you said – we pass it on to the next generation. They’re a huge part of how our culture communicates, and that’s a problem, but it can be so hard to fix.

  • Shybiker

    Good topic. I’ve seen language evolve over time and reflect current thoughts and prejudices. Years ago, nobody cared about naming a football team Redskins.

    • Kiersten McMonagle

      It definitely does – years ago, nobody would have said half the things they say today, and there are other phrases that were completely okay. Like Redskins – we had a HUGE debate about that in one of my Comm classes in college, and I was one of the only people saying it needs to be changed. People were just like “well that’s how it’s always been and it’s not hurting anyone.” They really couldn’t see how derogatory that is, and how you’d never name a team “whiteskins” or “blackskins”

  • Marielle

    You know, while I was job searching, I saw a posting for a “Girl Friday.” Some of this Mad Men era crap really sticks around. It’s definitely been hard to change my language in everyday life, especially with how casually we use gendered slurs – but I totally agree with Kate about stopping before imparting stereotypes on children!

    • Kiersten McMonagle

      What even IS “Girl Friday?” I definitely know that I sometimes do it too, so it’s something I’m really trying to work on. And I agree with you and Kate – this type of thing is taught, and I’d rather not pass it on to the next generation, and that starts with parents!

      • Marielle

        I think it’s like a secretary/office assistant, or a glorified intern…from the 60’s! Haha, I couldn’t believe someone was still using it.

  • Jenn @ Business, Life & Design

    Oh, I absolutely agree with you! It’s worse because we don’t notice it, because it’s affecting our beliefs subconsciously, in a place that’s much harder to notice that there’s a problem and correct it. I’m making an effort to not say things like, “like a little girl” or “man up” anymore, in addition to correcting any gender-limiting expectations I discover that I have. (This is the worst part – realizing that you yourself have sexist preconceived notions that you’ve never thought to question before.)

    • Kiersten McMonagle

      Exactly! Language is so so ingrained in us – these are phrases that, if you believe some people, we’ve been hearing since before we were born, while we were still in our mothers’ wombs. And even if not, we’ve been hearing it our entire lives. Phrases and ideas like this come with each language and culture, and it’s hard to separate them from our everyday conversation. It’s something I still have to work on – and like you said, that’s the hardest part – but I know how I notice it when other people do it.

  • Lulu

    Language is how we understand reality. I’m sick of people acting like words and phrases shouldn’t be analyzed any more closely because they are “essentially harmless.” There’s got to be a happy middle somewhere on the spectrum between too sensitive and not sensitive enough.

    • Kiersten McMonagle

      Exactly!!! We’d have no way of interacting or understanding without it, so OF COURSE the words you choose matter. How is saying “that’s gay” better or easier than “that sucks” or “that’s stupid?” It’s derogatory, and perpetuates really awful stereotypes and beliefs. And you’re right – I don’t want to be over-sensitive or “too pc”, but there’s got to be a middle ground somewhere that we’re not putting people down just to communicate the way we want to.

  • Daisy @ Simplicity Relished

    Love this linkup! I don’t have anything quite on topic but I’ll be thinking of something for the next one:) I agree that it’s important to come together as feminists and inspire each other and our readers!

    • Kiersten McMonagle

      Thank you, and yay! I do want to say though that it doesn’t have to be on this specific topic – anything on feminism is great!!

  • Zoe @ La Vie en Zoe

    I wrote a post a few months ago with the same title, after being teased (seriously, teased) by people for being such an outspoken feminist. I’m definitely going to take part in this link-up! :) I love this!

    • Kiersten McMonagle

      I honestly don’t understand the hatred of feminists, aside from to say that people just just understand what it really is. I’m lucky that I grew up with a mother who fought for women’s rights when she was my age, and who was always telling me about that. It never occurred to me to think of feminism as a bad thing (although I didn’t really start to get involved in it and learn more until college). Don’t let the teasing turn you away though! Anybody who’s reacting that way is a) being incredibly childish and b) doesn’t understand what it is that they’re making fun of. I can’t wait to see what you have to write about the topic!

  • Brita Long

    I wrote about language for the last link-up. I didn’t have a chance to write a new post last week, so I hope it’s okay that I shared an older post from my 101 series.
    Language is SO important in how we communicate. Language is a reflection of our culture and of our values. The more I learn about slurs, the more humbled (and embarrassed) I am by how little I know. I’ve only started to understand in the last year the racism and ableism present in common expressions. As a woman, I’ve always noticed the sexism, but I’ve learned a lot by studying intersectional feminism.

    • Kiersten McMonagle

      I know – it was a great post! And it’s not a problem at all – if it’s about feminism and you haven’t linked it up before, we want to see it :)

      It really is – it literally IS how we communicate. I guess I always knew that, obviously, but having been a communications major it really is a much bigger deal to me now because I realize how not only is language how we communicate, but it’s how we define our culture and what we believe. Saying something like “that’s so gay,” and then insisting that it doesn’t mean anything is total crap, because if you’re saying it at all, that fact alone MEANS something about our culture. And you’re right – I’ve always noticed the sexist remarks more, as a woman, and I think that’s natural, but I’m really working on noticing other problematic parts of language as well.