Words are all we have…
Never do I ever want to hear another word.
There isn’t one I haven’t heard.”
(Lyrics from the musical ‘My Fair Lady’, songwriters Alan Jay Lerner; Frederick Loewe)
Well now, there’s a challenge for the average writer. All we have is words.
I wanted to talk about word choice, about the power of words and of how how Eliza’s complaint does shape our writing… and why using words of power for trivia… does not make trivia important, it destroys the words.
It is like calling your dictatorship ‘the People’s Democratic Republic of whatever’. The words are picked for baggage of meaning they carry – a tool we writers use all the time. The problem of course is that Orwellian Newspeak like this is our worst enemy. Not only do the words fail for their new and adopted meaning, but they lose their old meaning and connotations. Just as ‘gay’ was once a term applied my clan, for their cheerful exuberance (everything is relative. This was in Scotland, and according to my Scots grandmother, purely related to their behavior when taken by drink or fighting, or, more commonly, both) and was adopted to its modern use for its useful baggage of connotations. Did it work? Well, I recently heard kids sneering at a reluctant participant in their cheerful exuberance not to be so gay… so I think a fair answer is no, not really. It’s lost the old meaning completely to most people, and the new one now means pretty much what the terms it replaced. What was shown in the new usage was not the old meaning. There is no magic in the word, but in what people associate with it, and that can easily be destroyed.
Someone in the Apartheid Government must have thought 1984 was an instruction manual, because they tried it a lot, changing what they called black folk and the administrators who applied the system. The problem with the euphemisms is they changed the words… but that was all. Strangely enough the words had no special magic and did not instantly make the world approve. They showed by their actions just what they meant by those words.
We’ve had a lot of it lately in politics and puppy kicking (the two are basically interchangeable a lot of the time). People using words for their power… in places where they’re hopelessly inaccurate and inappropriate. ‘Hitler’ or ‘fascist’ or ‘racist’ or ‘homophobe’ or ‘sexist.’ Now, these are powerful words with substantial implications, and certainly used correctly had negative impacts on the people they were used against… But the words themselves are not magical. Use them in your book today… and well, if they’re used merely as weapons against people who the user dislikes and disagrees with… pretty soon that’s all they’ll mean. In fact they may well come to mean the opposite…
As a practical example: as one of the Sad Puppies I was called all of the list above. Now, I worked out I’ve been involved in some kind of first responder volunteering for damn near 40 years now. These days I’m a volunteer Ambulance officer. That means if there’s that car crash in the middle of the night, there’s a reasonable chance that I’ll be first into that vehicle, trying to do my best for the injured. Now according the puppy kickers I’d crawl into the upside-down, half-crushed vehicle and see the bleeding individual and say “Are you homosexual? Or not white? I can’t tell if you’re a woman (odds are good my fellow volunteer will be, and every one of them is someone to ride the river with) so what sex are you? I need to know before I check your airway and deal with the bleeding and do my best to rescue you.”
Injured car crash victim being unconscious, and having an obstructed airway fails to fill out the lack-of-diversity checklist I have to carry to live up to the words applied to me by the commenters at File 770… oh dearie me.
These words mean nothing to me. Whether that’s NK Jemison, or Vox Day hanging by that seatbelt, I’m still going to do exactly what I would have done – which is the best I can possibly do to save lives and help the injured, in order of the first aid guidelines – which don’t actually have anything to do with sex, sexual orientation or skin color, or even politics, but relate to giving the victims the best chance.
The words have not lived up to their ‘magic’. The ‘show’ doesn’t match them. It’s not the show that will change. I am what I am, and do what I do. There is ample evidence of that, contrary to the words used because they were powerful and the user wanted to harm someone they didn’t like and disagreed with. Yes, I know. I saw the video of the woman who thought it better to have her pizza cut into 8 pieces and not 12 because she couldn’t eat twelve pieces. There are people that stupid that they will rather believe the words than the ‘show’. There are people who can’t understand simple probabilities too. But despite them, what will happen is that the meaning of the word will change to what it shows.
If you think about it, that’s… not a great idea. Someday someone MAY literally be like Hitler, or a neo-Nazi. It’ll be a trifle awkward, then, if the words come out merely meaning ‘someone I don’t like and disagree with’ – especially if you’ve shown you’re a nasty, malicious piece of work, prepared to use these words for your own gain. You’re more likely to make readers assume the opposite is true and you’re being your normal ‘delightful’ self and projecting and lying again.
And this of course feeds through into writing. Writing popular fiction that gets readers eager to buy takes a skillful suspension of disbelief. Now, the truly great writer can make the reader at least for the duration of the book accept something he or she knows is not true. But – speaking as one of the not great, it’s a task best woven on a loom of truth, with some threads of fiction. If you’re going to portray a place most readers know is a rustbelt city, decaying, with no work available, and 80% black population… If you write it as that, and weave threads of fiction and perhaps even threads of truth about positive aspects which are less known… you’ll have a chance at suspending disbelief.
If you start trying to use the magic words like ‘thriving’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘multicultural’ they won’t work. The show (as it exists) in the mind of the readers, does not match the words. At best they’ll TBAR your book. At worst other writers will support the same magic words and soon they’ll be understood as what is shown. That’s been the weakness of PC scripted writing: not that it necessarily had poor goals, but that magic of words is weak, and can only shift reality by microns, but reality can shift the meanings of words by miles.
If you want your book to change the world and all you have is words, be prepared to move it a hair’s breadth. That you can do. Try for a league, and you’ll probably hurt what you wished to do instead.