WHAT’S IN A WORD?

This is my first post since the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and that day always seems to bring to mind for me some of the ways that words, both in literature and ordinary life, can impact social change. In the 1990s, MWA, through the vote of its membership, compiled a list of the “Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time.” Number sixty on the list was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that belongs, of course, to the mainstream of American literature as well as to crime fiction. Although it proved to be one of the bestselling novels of all time, that book was banned from many schools and libraries as soon as it began to enter curriculums in the mid 1960s. Objections to the book ranged from its depiction of an interracial attraction to its racial slurs. And it certainly isn’t the only classic of American literature tugged at by such opposing forces for censorship. In 2010, Huckleberry Finn was reissued in an edition expurgating offensive racial terms, but when it was first published, it was its use of words perceived inappropriate to polite society, like “sweat,” that kept it off shelves.

Partly as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, over the past fifty years most Americans have become more sensitive about the use of words that could insult or offend. Speaking of her childhood reading of Huckleberry Finn and her encounter with its use of what is almost universally referred to now as the ‘N word,’ author Toni Morrison has said: “Embarrassing as it had been to hear the dread word spoken, and therefore sanctioned, in class, my experience of Jim’s epithet had little to do with my initial nervousness the book had caused.” She describes being at times “embarrassed, bored, and annoyed” by the word’s use, but never fazed by it. Children sometimes seem to grasp better than adults that the power of a word lies in its context and intention, and it seems to me that this is one of many arguments that could be put forth for leaving a masterpiece of children’s literature like Twain’s as written—especially since that particular book aimed to expose not sanction the racism of its day. We can understand, though, why adults would want to protect children from the impact of words with a long history of intent to wound, and for that reason I doubt this issue with regard to literature will ever be laid to rest. The fact that it has become entirely unacceptable throughout most of our society to use words that involve racial or ethnic slurs not only in business and government but in private discourse has probably helped to make our country more tolerant. But what do we say about a work of literature that seeks to represent society as it is, that aims to capture the way that people really speak? How does one balance the desire to deprive corrupting and offensive speech from having continued currency with the need to portray what is—or in the case of an historical work was—really there?

A number of years ago, I received a cancellation letter from a subscriber who was the mother of a deaf child. We had just published Florence Mayberry’s “The Secret,” a tale told from the point of view of a young girl. Speaking of neighbors for whom she clearly has affection, the child narrator says, “ . . . you had to look right at them and move your lips slow, or use deaf-and-dumb talk with your hands like Miss Abbie did.” Our subscriber wrote that she was reduced to tears on reading that expression “deaf-and-dumb talk” and others like it in the story. For fear that her daughter might pick up the issue and read it, she destroyed it and informed us she could no longer trust what we might send to their home.

It’s easy to forget how different the use of language pertaining to all sorts of minorities, not only racial and ethnic ones, was prior to the Civil Rights Movement—to forget that other groups, based on gender, disability, and sexual orientation, were inspired by the struggle for racial equality to demand not only changes in laws but in language. The word “dumb” (in the sense of “mute”) had so thoroughly disappeared from accepted usage by the 1990s, when this story was published, that I felt it necessary to point out, in my reply letter to our subscriber, that the story had a historical setting that dated back to a time when this was the widely accepted way of referring to someone without oral speech—and that it had not been intended, in most contexts, to insult. Certainly not in the way that racial epithets are intended to insult.

This was to me a clear-cut case of potentially hurtful language being necessary for the story—and it was a story I thought deserved to be published—to be believable. But that didn’t mean I didn’t sympathize with the reader or that I failed to take the implied point that there is a relationship of trust that must exist between the editor of a subscription-based magazine and his or her readership. Had Florence Mayberry’s story been published in a book rather than a magazine, the reader, if disturbed, could simply have taken the decision never to buy a book containing work by the offending author again. Readers of a subscription magazine, however, are not making their own buying decisions. They don’t know what’s going to be coming up in the next issue; they have to trust the buyer of the fiction that’s being delivered to their door—and that, of course, is the editor. I had violated this reader’s trust, and it was something that bothered me even though I thought I’d made the right decision in publishing the story. It’s possible that at the more “literary” end of the fiction spectrum, this sort of problem of balancing readers’ sensitivities and the artistic demands of the fiction itself occurs less frequently. With a broad-based popular-fiction magazine like EQMM, it comes up often, and it causes me to think that we may have become over-sensitized to the potential derogatory connotations of expressions that most often are actually used in a purely descriptive way.

Curiously, that hypersensitivity about the use of language in some areas of our culture coexists with what I find to be some very reckless and harmful uses of language in the current political realm. Think of the way the word “evil” has reemerged in the past couple of decades. Politicians have come to savor this word, using it in reference to one foreign regime after another, and to denounce those on the other side of all sorts of important issues (“evil Obamacare” and “evil cuts to unemployment benefits” are two instances I’ve seen recently). But it’s not just politicians and cable news commentators with whom that word is becoming more popular. It may seem odd for a mystery editor to object to careless use of that particular word. After all, crime fiction often turns on an uncompromising division of the world into good and evil. An article in the New Yorker a couple of years ago about Swedish crime writer Stieg Larsson speculated that one of the reasons for the phenomenal popularity of his books is precisely that, morally speaking, he acknowledges no shades of gray: “the truly innocent at the mercy of the truly evil . . . the absolutist morals of Larsson’s books . . . may be a powerful selling point,” the article’s author, Joan Acocella, remarked. But why, I wonder, is that kind of moral absolutism proving so popular in fiction now? Could it be that the kind of language that prevails in a culture solidifies a type of thinking? The belief that it does was, after all, the reason people fought so hard to change the way minorities were referred to.

I find moral absolutism, and therefore the kind of language that entrenches it, disturbing. Moral perspectives that admit no shades of gray take us further from King’s dream of transforming “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” since absolutists obviously do not all agree on what is black and what is white. Words matter. Had Dr. King been less eloquent, less attuned to the many shades of meaning words carry, he might not have been able to transform our nation the way he did. If only more of our current public figures remembered that.—Janet Hutchings

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6 Responses to WHAT’S IN A WORD?

  1. Lou manfredo says:

    Janet,
    Well written and very thoughtful. I struggle with these issues in my novels, and you have articulated my own conflicting emotions perfectly. Orson Welles once said (and I paraphrase)”the absence of censorship is the enemy of creativity.” As you know, there was no greater champion of freedom of expression than Welles, yet he, too, was obviously conflicted. It appears we are in good company.
    With best regards,
    Lou Manfredo

  2. Really like this article. It made me think.

  3. David Dean says:

    Wonderful article, Janet. I often find myself wrestling with particular words. With a language as malleable and responsive as English, words can practically alter their meanings (at least in a social sense) right before one’s eyes. As you point out with the current use of “evil”, words are sometimes taken hostage to serve a single master; depriving them of the shadings and depth necessary for meaningful communication. George Orwell understood that words can shape thought, just as surely as thoughts shape words–a good lesson for all writers to learn; and not a bad one for citizens, in general, I think. Thanks for your thoughts here.

    • Janet Hutchings says:

      Thanks, David. I agree with you that the meanings of words can alter subtly over very short periods of time. That might be a subject for another post!

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