The Power of Language


The sympathy, empathy, and pure common sense of considering the intent and effect of the terms we use.




A little blind girl, because she could not see him, wrote Mister Rogers and asked him to say—to speak the words—that he is feeding the goldfish. For each episode after that, he spoke the words. It only took 1 letter. I do not think Mister Rogers acted out of sympathy or empathy, but out of sheer common sense.

A reporter for The Jerusalem Post wrote there is a stigma to epilepsy. I sent her this anecdote from my past: I am in a pre-teaching workshop at college, and we are being told what to do, should a student experience a seizure. We were not being alienated by word, but being instructed how to help. She never again directed that term—I believe, again, not out of sympathy or empathy, but out of sheer common sense. It makes sense to educate where you can.

The constituents of the Association for Retarded Citizens approached its administrators and asked them to change its name, as they did not like being called “retarded.” The organization changed its name to The Arc of the United States, I believe out of sympathy, empathy, and pure common sense. They had simply not considered the effect of the language in their name.

We often do not consider the effect of our language. Mister Rogers heard, the reporter for The Jerusalem Post heard, and the administrators of The Arc heard, but we do not all hear. We find ourselves acclimated to language long a part of our past, bringing this language into our present and into the future. It is not our intention to hurt or harm anyone—we have simply become so accustomed to particular words that we employ them without giving thought to their intent.

Words themselves have intent. Word is deed. We have the power to fashion our language to intend good. Indeed, that should be our intent.

I watch with surprise the continuing use of the term, “stigma,” in the area of mental health. Like the term the constituents of The Arc responded to, this term is sufficiently alienating both to the public and to those at whom we direct it. It would be wise to do, as the administrators of The Arc did, and change our language out of empathy, sympathy, and plain common sense. We do not want to do harm to anyone.

A little girl who could not see asked Mister Rogers to speak out loud that he was feeding the goldfish, so she, not being able to see, could picture it alongside those of us gifted with sight. A reporter, recognizing she could educate rather than alienate, altered her approach. A group of administrators, listening to their constituents, changed the name of their organization out of sheer respect for the individuals they represented.

Can we do less for the individuals we represent? Have we not that same obligation, out of sympathy, empathy, and pure common sense?

Foremost out of sheer common sense.

Mr Maio is a retired mental health editor in Fort Myers, Florida.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Psychiatric Times™.

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