As an avid reader and sometimes writer, I love words – the way they look, the way they sound, their etymology over time, and the way they’re put together to form sentences, paragraphs, articles and books. I also subscribe to a word-of-the-day service that delivers a new word, definition, and history to my email box every morning. (It’s amazing how many words I don’t know!) Words convey meaning, but they also convey feelings, and sometimes the feelings are so powerful that the words lose their meaning. To my ear, there are six words that are so power packed with feeling that, upon examination, dissolve into meaninglessness: liar, idiot, stupid, ugly, shut up (two words, actually) and, of course, hate.
Where I grew up, you had to have your fists clenched if you called someone a liar, because, as the saying goes, “Them’s fightin’ words.” What is meant by accusing someone of being a liar is that they have made a deliberate misrepresentation of facts for nefarious purposes. This is fine, if the facts are specific and indisputable. However, the way the word is used today – especially in political discourse – is not to dispute a specific assertion but to attack someone’s entire character. As such, the word liar loses meaning and becomes mere invective.
2) IDIOT & STUPID
I have a daughter who is fond of calling anyone who does something that annoys her an idiot or who says something she disagrees with stupid. While I love my daughter, I cringe when I hear her use the words, because it’s not what she means. Calling someone an idiot or stupid is to insult them in a way that has nothing to do with what was done or said; it is a mere projection of frustration. However, I see nothing wrong with using these words to add color to a description of your own behavior, such as “I’m such an idiot,” or “You wouldn’t believe the stupid thing I just did.”
Ugly is a word I use with caution because it is judgmental (often without justification), requires context, and carries the potential to be hurtful. To describe things as ugly – buildings, art, furniture, etc. – is meaningless without the qualifier “I think” and a reason for the judgment. To describe a person as ugly is mean-spirited, demeaning, hurtful and, if delivered in person, a form of bullying. The word ugly is entirely appropriate when clearly used as an opinion, as in “ugly incident” or “ugly wound.”
4) SHUT UP
I have a visceral reaction when I hear the expression shut up used – it makes my stomach churn. Shut up is rarely used as a request for silence, and it feels like a slap in the face; it’s jarring and it’s usually spit rather than spoken. The mere act of enunciating shut up bunches the face up in a sneer. It’s hard to imagine a situation where shut up is useful.
Which brings me to the word hate. As with all the words on my list, the word hate can carry lots of emotion when used as a verb in a mean or spiteful way. For example, the expression “I hate you” is a bilious attack on the recipient meant not to convey information but to cause harm. It is vacant of meaning (hate what about me?) but full of emotion and a blanket condemnation. When used as an adjective (e.g. hate crime, hate mongering), however, the word hate conveys meaning because it’s a judgment and not an attack. Hate can also be used effectively as an exaggeration when referring to yourself, as in “I hate Mondays.”
Endless flexibility is the beauty of the English language. Things can be said in many different ways. Be careful that the words you use say what you mean without unintended emotion.