…may break my bones but…

Everyone’s heard it so many times, I don’t even have to finish. It’s ranked right up there with such cult classics as, ‘Liar liar pants-on-fire,’ and, ‘I’m rubber, you’re glue…’ blah blah blah.

The Power of Words
The Power of Words

The timeless phrase parents everywhere have taught their kids about name-calling has become ingrained in our cultural identity – almost as much as Star Wars – over the past century. But as I live in Korea and take the opportunity to study another language, the question that begs to be asked is: Can words hurt?

I posit, no. Words cannot hurt. Not on their own anyway. They require something additional to really sting but I didn’t realize it until living halfway around the world.

Native English speakers take the depth of our language for granted. We honestly don’t think about it. Why would we? It’s second nature. The primary language in which we’re brought up is usually the only way communicate. And communication itself – the simple act of conveying a message to another person – is often taken for granted.

English is the most poetic language every created. Let me explain what I mean. By poetic, I’m talking about the sheer number of words that exist in English; far more than any other language and probably more than if you were to combine some. There are more adjectives, adverbs, and words that clarify degree in English than in any other spoken tongue… in history. Seriously. In history.

Nuff Said
Nuff Said

Are you surprised? English is, after all, the language of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Dickens, and even Frank Capra. Over the past few hundred years it has spread across the globe and become the predominate form of human communication. While some of us, George Orwell comes to mind, may consider these extra words overkill, I certainly disagree. We need all the words we can get – the more the merrier! But words alone mean nothing. There’s a missing piece to this equation.

In every other language, all those with far fewer words than English, people still manage to effectively communicate their message whether they’re the transmitter or the receiver. How is this possible when they don’t know the difference between all the different synonyms that can be used to mean something is good or great? Just to give you an idea, there are over 5,000.  Do you know how many there are in Korean? I’ll give you three guesses but I’ll bet you won’t need them. There’s one.

What I’m talking about is context and in foreign language acquisition, context is everything. I teach my kids that context refers to the clues found within the sentence or paragraph of a reading passage to help them ascertain the meaning of an unknown vocabulary word. But that is only the most basic of definitions. Context gives words weight, turning simple ideas complex.

While English has over 5,000 words that basically mean ‘good’, the Korean word for good is 좋은 and means everything from ‘nice’ to ‘tenacious’. How the receiver of the message knows which definition to use is completely reliant on the rest of the sentence construction. Meaning can be implied through association of other words or, in the instance of speech, through intonation, stresses, and accents.

Someone should steal this guy's red hat.
Someone should steal this guy’s red hat.

Last week I taught my kids that you can create implied meaning in a single sentence without altering a single word. All they had to do was change the way they spoke the sentence; put the tonal stress in a different place each time.

I didn’t say you stole my red hat.

There are eight different (and subtle) meanings to this phrase that you can alter simply by moving the accent. Try it. Emphasize the word ‘say‘ in one reading and then emphasize ‘stole‘ in the next.

Do you hear it? Completely different implied meanings. So while this sentence means virtually nothing on it’s own, within a specific context the meaning morphs.

The same can be true of words themselves. A single word may not be hurtful on its own but take that word and toss it into a hurtful remark directed at someone. It carries an entirely new power. Tarantino was lambasted for his use of the ‘N word’ in his most recent film Django Unchained. He defended himself saying he wrote period authentic dialog which was exactly how people spoke back then. Contemporary audiences needed to leave their present day, cultural bias at the door before viewing the picture to really enjoy it.

One Sheet
One Sheet

The ‘N word’ on it’s own is an interesting example. The definition is merely, ‘one who doesn’t understand or know something.’ However, that meaning is changed drastically depending on the message’s sender and receiver. Hip hop artists, for example, use it all the time. And for some reason that’s completely acceptable. Yet if I were to say it (which you can read that I haven’t), I would either be ridiculed, beaten up, cursed at, or given some other outrageous reaction. But why?

Some people have tried to take back that word and others like it. If you hear women referring to each other as ‘bitch’ or ‘slut’ or ‘whore’, that is an attempt to overuse it to the point of saturation, so it doesn’t hurt when some moronic frat boy calls her that name.

But they’re just words. Aren’t they? Remove the context and they lose their power.

I move that words themselves don’t hurt but the surrounding context is what becomes painful. So the age old mantra had credence: sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. The names won’t hurt you. The sender of the names will, especially if you happen to care about that person or they care about you. The words may not break your bones, but they’ll probably break something.

Until Next Time…


PS – Apologies if this philosophical grammar topic was a bit too sterile for some of you. I am a writer and an English teacher after all… something like this was bound to come up sooner or later. All my posts can’t be about the horrors of Cambodian genocide… 😛


2 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones

  1. I loved your spin on words. Brings me back to to 7th grade English with Ms. Burton! I find it interesting you tell us words are just that, and still chose to write N word; doesn’t that contradict your messag? I do not like ‘curse’ words and appreciate it, but still it’s just a word!

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