Words have power. It’s a simple enough concept, though perhaps underappreciated or downplayed when compared to fists or guns. That said, each of us has emotional reactions to words, whether a Shakespearean play, a political speech, or the handwritten note in a birthday card. And therein lies the control they have over us.
Many of us have heard as children, or said as adults, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s a comforting lie that both parties believe because it makes the problem go away. At least for a little while.
If you’ve ever been the victim of slurs, whether racial, sexual, or gender-based, you already know the power of a single word. For those of us who haven’t, we can appreciate the impact of a good F-bomb, though that doesn’t tend have the same power as the examples of above.
Additionally, as I recall important events of my lifetime, there is considerable power in certain words, such as “marriage”, “Black”, “abortion”, “conservative”, and “liberal”. Just post a social media update that includes one of these to remind yourself of that.
I’m of the belief, however, that there is power in any single word – important or not – depending on the context. Which is why I’ve chosen “also” as my topic for today.
The aforementioned subjects are of great consequence to our world, and I am not suggesting that a linguistic discussion about a common adverb is of equal concern. Rather, I hope to demonstrate how something insignificant can change the tone and intent of any conversation.
I mean, come on, we probably give it no extra thought in writing, reading, or speech. In many cases, we could rewrite it out of a sentence and the reader wouldn’t know the difference.
- We should get groceries and also pick up vacuum bags.
- We should buy groceries and vacuum bags.
But that’s a minor application compared to its role in the following examples.
I would also like the right to vote.
I am his parent, so I also need custody of my child.
I would like my culture’s history also studied
I would like my child’s gender identity to also be respected
I would also like to practice my religion
In those examples, “also” plays a more powerful part. It leaves no doubt that a person is requesting an addition to an established practice or point of view. It speaks to inclusion and acceptance. Said another way, it suggests that we have room to grow: Here is where we are today, and this is where I’d like to go so we can be equal or have a mutual understanding.
And it has power not just for the person saying those things. When it comes to arguments against these concepts, “also” seems to have been mistaken as an outrageous synonym for “instead of”.
You want your history studied instead of mine.
You want your holiday celebrated instead of mine.
You want your culture featured instead of ours.
“Also”, as seen from this viewpoint, is taken as a criticism of something that works just fine today. How dare you ask us to also include you when we already have? a person might ask, failing to recognize the irony.
It could be argued that even if such requests for equality didn’t include “also”, they would be met with similar venom. And that’s likely true, but it misses the point. “Also” was deliberately used in each request to add clarity: an addition was being asked for, not a replacement.
Still, the counterargument ignores the word, and deliberately so. Why? Some people are feeling attacked, perhaps forgetting the “sticks and stones” adage they taught their children. And while validating feelings are important, the deliberate twisting of the requester’s intent is bullshit. A desire for equality or a place at the metaphorical table doesn’t mean someone else loses a physical chair. We all know it, even those who have chosen to believe in some ulterior motive or negative intent. Maybe, just maybe, that insignificant adverb has more power than we believed.
Could that be considered an awful lot of thought applied to a simple word? Perhaps. But imagine how little thought went into the belief that your culture was being destroyed because someone asked you to also consider theirs.
Thanks for reading a post about human equality that also discussed linguistics. Good luck with your writing!
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© Michael Wallevand, June 2021