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Taffy Field: The Power of Language Hits Home

The public debate over language has been getting louder in recent months.

  I returned to the high school English classroom where I teach after a week's leave recently, and my highly-hip, young, male co-teacher hailed me with a hearty, "Hiya, Grandma!" Our students looked up, aghast. I'll let my co-teacher off the hook in a minute, but first, let's focus on the students' shock.

We've spent the semester taking a careful look at language, at the ways our word choices, our syntax, our inflections all hold the potential to draw other people in or push them away, how they mark our social groupings, how they influence power inequities, how they reinforce or melt stereotypes - even how they can set the stage for genocide. We've looked at the writings of George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, Elaine Hansberry, Junot Diaz.

But we've also turned the lens on ourselves. And inevitably we've come to the question of who gets to say what, when, and where.

Some social and political groups have co-opted erstwhile slurs and imbued them with power. The N-word is an example, and there's some noisy controversy over who gets to use it. Consider an activist of color who uses it to denote his in-status or capture a listener's attention.

Now consider the sound of a middle class white woman using it. Even if the latter doesn't evoke images of accusations and lynchings, it probably doesn't sit comfortably on your ears. Who's she trying to be? may be a question that comes to mind. We may hear her as inauthentic or insincere, as co-opting, as patronizing, as someone who wandered off an old movie set.

In our class we decided the activist of color gets to use it because he's part of the group it names; the middle class white woman does not. That's a workable set of guidelines - if only because we remember that the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide began calling their victims cockroaches to obscure the essential humanity of those for whom they intended harm, and we used racial slurs in WWII, in Viet Nam, and in the Middle East for the same reason.

What we call each other matters. Of course it's a long continuum from calling my best friend a bozo when she trips coming up my front steps, to venomous propaganda. And of course there's lots of fun to be had in the un-policed language of every day; it is, in fact, one of the ways we establish intimacy. But we should never lose sensitivity to the ways it can also set us apart from each other.

My students were aghast because "Hiya, Grandma!" was a potentially ageist put-down that sounded both derogatory and wise-ass. In this case, my co-teacher and I both laughed. "It's ok," he clarified for the students. "She really is. That's why she wasn't here last week."

Palpable deep breath in the room, and in those moments I could see that the class itself was succeeding for all of us; the students' umbrage, and our understanding of it, had been so immediate I knew a heightened sensitivity to language had become intrinsic. I can already think of a thousand places in this fractious world where that sensitivity could serve, a thousand places including our own homes where "Watch your language" may be our most important statecraft.

Writer Taffy Field teaches high school English in Southern Maine.