A Hole in the English Language

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: July 05, 2016

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 05, 2016





I’d like to do a little test with you. Please, play along and answer the following questions with the obvious answers. First, what do you call someone who takes things that doesn’t belong to him? Right, a thief. Next, what do you call someone who never tells the truth? Good, a liar. And, what do you call someone who has taken a life? A murderer. You are playing along nicely.

Now, I want you to answer these next questions the same way. As quickly as possible, using the obvious responses. However, I must caution you to use only nouns. I want to hear labels, not descriptions. Okay, ready? What do you call someone who only tells the truth? What do you call someone who never takes anything that doesn’t belong to them? You seem stuck for an answer. What would you call someone who has never taken a life? I’m getting a lot of dead air from you right now. Don’t feel badly, everyone responds the same way. There is a hole in the English language. Its consequences run much deeper than most people think.

Your old pal Norman has spent most of his life working with kids. Many of these kids came from a world that did their best to ruin any chance of happiness or functionality needed to get through life. Part of this was due to holes in the lexicon. Allow me to explain.

A young person gets caught stealing a yo-yo from the Chinaman’s corner store. (the fact that this example in very specific in no way connects it to the author) This kid is about to go through some serious consequences designed to put him on the straight and narrow. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. An examination of the subsequent interaction shows something different.

“Son, you stole something that doesn’t belong to you. Do you know what that makes you? A thief.”

“But I didn’t mean to steal it.”

“And now you’re a liar. A thief and a liar. Is that what you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s important to note that in this scenario, no one was murdered, so your understanding of how this label would be applied will have to be imagined. 

A thief and a liar. Nouns. They are things, not actions. They go along with titles like boy, goalie, hippie, fluffer. These words are meant to describe a person, not an action. And there’s a funny thing that happens when one is labeled. One starts to take on more of the characteristics of said label. For instance, when I was fourteen, someone saw me playing a guitar. He referred to me as a guitarist. Well, let me tell you how that changed my perception of me. The first thing I did was go and learn a fourth chord (up to then, I thought that there were only three). I would stand in front of a mirror with a guitar case in my hand, as if walking down the street. Then I’d walk down the street with it. I truly believed that I was a guitarist simply because someone labeled me as one. 

Now, imagine a child who is trying to find his (it works the same way for a ‘her’ as well) handle in life. He was unfortunate enough to be born into a life that isn’t giving him much of a fighting chance. He’ll hang on to whatever shred of reinforcement thrown his way. Since I have spent most of my life working with kids, I can tell you just how often this happens. One day, he finds himself on the wrong end of some unfortunate incidents. It’s at this time that his handlers forget that they should be berating an act, and not a person. Labels stick, and they are about to prove this point.

As they refer to him as a thief and a liar, a tiny place within him feels an odd sense of warmth. For some, this place is not so tiny. If this happens only once or twice in his childhood, chances are he’ll get over it, maybe even grow in a positive direction. However, he doesn’t have it so lucky. He’ll continue to hear such labels until he starts to believe them. His behaviours begin to answer to the title that they have bestowed upon him. This may seem simplistic and not very scientific. If so, then I will guide your attention to our prisons and graveyards. Both are filled with their share of those who suffered under the labels I’m talking about.

Much of my work with kids starts out by getting them to believe the complete and equal opposite of the parameters that are boxing them in and modifying their behaviours. In short, disbelieving their present labels. That’s when I come across my greatest struggle: what label can I give them when they don’t lie, when they don’t steal? I search, in vain, for a noun. Descriptions aren’t labels. Describing how someone is can be fluffy and ambiguous. My friend called me a guitarist, not someone who plays guitar. The difference is massive. Therefore, telling someone that they ‘tell the truth’ doesn’t have the same effect as if they were called an ‘actualist’. 

I’m constantly searching for ways to reach the unreachable. You’d think that a language like English would be more helpful. You’d be wrong. Perhaps the language reflects the nature of people. I’d like to believe that the opposite is possible as well. Language does define who we’ve become, but it also leads us to the people we can be, good and bad. If being called a guitarist can make me act like Steve Vai or Andre Segovia, then calling me a thief might turn me into a Bernie Madoff or Five Finger Freddie. By the way, Freddie could really handle his bourbon.

I believe that the hole in this language has shed a light on a part of our deepest nature. We are much more ready to create the kind of people we don’t want to be, rather than help others to be more in line with our positive images. In short, we are part of the problem, or, at least, our language is. We are quick to condemn. Is this because of our language? I know that it’s a chicken and egg situation, but both chicken and egg are nouns. Walk up to an egg, and tell it it’s an egg, and it’ll act like one.

Once, I found myself in a debate with someone who was wanting all labels to be removed. She believed that labelling was the problem. I disagree. I’ve seen the progress that labelling makes even if it’s bad. I think the answer lies in using the power of labelling for good instead of evil. Let’s take its ability to modify and influence, and use it in positive ways. But first, we need the right labels and, as I have demonstrated, the right labels have yet to be developed. So, to all you lexicographers out there, start plugging the holes. This is not just an exercise, but a desperate need. 

© Copyright 2018 Norman K. All rights reserved.

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