January 5, 2013

Our words are full of discovery

I love words. 

I love discovering new words (although, I can never pronounce them) that open my mind to foreign concepts or that finally crystallize some elusive emotion. I love old, not-often-used words that bubble to the surface like fleeting, but cherished memories. I love a well-chosen word or phrase that can make something simple sound so special: toasted cheese sandwiches, laundry soap or washing the floors.

The power of words amazes me; the fearsome power to unlock or damage a timid heart, the gathering power of a whispered prayer. I am fascinated by the bias we give certain words and the value that we assign to others — sometimes deservedly so, sometimes not.

Several years ago, a friend of mine was talking to her 4-year-old son. They were discussing his grandmother, and the little boy nonchalantly commented that the grandmother was “fat.” My friend immediately told her boy not to call his grandmother “fat.” The little boy looked completely confused and said, “But she is fat.” Later, my friend told me she realized her son was not using “fat” as a put down; he was describing his grandmother in the same way he would say that her hair was brown or she was short. This little boy adored his grandmother, and the only one judging the term “fat” was my friend. How often do we do that as adults? How many times do we add implication or weight to a word that doesn’t need to be there?

A former student recently told me a story about a grandmother who had temporarily taken custody of her grandchild. The child’s biological mother would become hurt and defensive when the child called the grandmother “mommy.” My student wondered at this hurt as the mother was providing no care whatsoever for the child. The child knew who to turn to for food and comfort; controlling what the child called her caregiver wouldn’t change the reality of who responded in the night. Our oldest son calls me “mu-mu” when he is feeling playful and loving. It may not be “mommy,” but my heart melts whenever I hear it.

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