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Notes from the Small Pond...Linguistics

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columns Cloquet, 55720

Cloquet Minnesota 122 Avenue C 55720

Whoever invented that stupid nursery rhyme about "sticks and stones breaking bones" and "names never hurting" was just plain wrong and did more harm to generations of grower-uppers than Captain Kangaroo could ever heal. Words freaking hurt. Way more than sticks and stones, for God's sake. I'd rather be beaten to a pulp and dumped in a garbage can than labeled "pedophile" the rest of my life, even though it's just a word. But that's just me.

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Twenty-some years ago I woke up one sunny morning in our tiny, hot apartment and turned on the radio to listen to the news. The previous night, while we slept, just a block down the street a young man had been beaten to death. "Curb-stomped" to be specific. I'd never heard the term before then and never since, but it's burned into my consciousness like an ugly Tyson tattoo. Turns out, the guy was stomped to death because he called someone else "fag." Just a word.

"Lazy."

"Loser."

"Fat."

"Stupid."

"Liar."

"Rapist."

"Retard."

"Felon."

"Weakling."

"Idiot."

"Addict."

"Worthless."

"Fake."

"Cheater."

Just words. ... But apply them to an actual, individual human being and the destruction is diabolical. Turns out, words aren't just words. They mean things. And, amazingly, the same words - the identical combination of letters - mean different things to different people, at different times, in different contexts. Words are amazing. Greatest show on Earth.

The word "chair" doesn't mean anything at all other that what it means to each, individual human being's notion of what a chair is. Therefore, my idea of "chair" is totally my own and necessarily distinct from everyone else's....because my experience of chairs, early on and still, continually informs the picture of "chair" that comes up in my mind when I hear, speak or see the word. My idea of "chairness" is a wooden, sort of mission style chair. The kind my parents had around our kitchen table when I was a kid. What's your idea of "chair?"

What's your idea of "felon?" Scary? What color skin? What gender? What age? What crime? What kind of house? What job? What do they believe? How did they grow up? What's their favorite song? Their favorite ice cream? What heartbreaks? What victories?

A good friend of mine had a beloved black lab named "Felon." A loveable, smart, affectionate animal. "Felon" was just a name. A one-dimensional descriptor.

We'd do well to keep that one-dimensional nature of "labels" in mind when we use them. When we hear them.

What's your idea of "addict?" Or "winner?" What/who do you see when you hear or read those words? They're just words, right?

There are 7 billion of us. Seven billion ideas of "chair." Seven billion notions of "felon." "Addict." "Dad." "Friend." "Loser." Lots of room for interpretation. Lots of room for misunderstanding. And lots of opportunities to improve our understanding of one another. Heard a young mother telling her toddler the other day: "Use your words." Excellent advice for non-toddlers.

But which words? It's important to use the right ones at the right times. Words are not like money. If I want to spend a dollar, I have lots of options, i.e.: a one-dollar bill. One hundred pennies. Twenty nickels. Ten dimes. Four quarters. And so on.

Words are not to be similarly spent. Saying "I love you" means an entirely different thing every time the phrase is uttered. The same three words spoken to your wife, your son, your dog, your lasagna, your Buick, have entirely different meanings. And, "I love you" means something else when one's behavior doesn't jive with the utterance, i.e.: If I beat you, steal from you, lie to you, cheat on you, disrespect you, ignore you, humiliate you, saying, "I love you" all the while...well. You get the point. What I might really mean is: "I need you. Or I resent the hell out of you, but can't leave you because I need your paycheck. Or I really wish I still loved you..." and so on.

Plato, in "The Republic" is all over this. Read his cave allegory.

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