Language is a distinctly human ability; our language is made up of words— not growls and grunts. But though our capacity to communicate is what separates us from beasts, we rarely stop to marvel. We can write! We can talk! We utter hundreds, if not thousands, of words a day, most often to relay the humdrum information of the mundane: the frivolous pleasantries of superficial small talk, the obligatory “hello, how are you?” in the grocery store check out. We’re careless with our words, only approximating— rather than exactly— expressing our thoughts. We allow words to slip from our mouths, forgetting they have a current of implied meanings and historical connotations that surge beneath the surface of their definitions in Merriam Webster. We use offensive, derogatory language to revolt against political correctness, thinking we’re provocative defenders of free speech when we’re really just insensitive morons.
Throughout history, those in power have intentionally manipulated language to conceal, rather than reveal, truth. The ruling class weaponizes words to pit the marginalized against each other. Political parties mobilize hate speech to advance their agendas and dehumanize entire groups. Tragically, in our 1984 dystopia of “alternative facts,” language continues to be abused.
Though we take words for granted, nothing is more powerful. “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word,” Emily Dickinson once wrote. Indeed, the Bible attests, “In the beginning was the Word.” Words catch the elusive and inexpressible. When we take care to choose words that precisely convey our meaning, we can articulate what was once inarticulable. Before anything can exist in the physical, material plane, it must first exist as an idea. The theory of relativity, the notion of civil disobedience, the foundational democratic belief that “all men are created equal”: all began as ideas. They only revolutionized our lives once they were expressed in words. Language is the vehicle through which we can transport our innermost thoughts; it’s how we spread ideas. Words launch movements and ignite revolutions, overthrow oppressive governments and spark meaningful discourse. In other words, they remake the world.
Because we’ve been bestowed with the miraculous gift of language, we must be responsible with our words. This pressing responsibility is what Rebecca Solnit explores in her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names. A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the impotence of anger, the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories. As the title suggests, Ms. Solnit’s latest collection is a passionate plea to name things precisely. Our ancestors knew there was tremendous power in naming things as they are. As Solnit says, it’s only after we diagnose a disease that we can find a cure:
“One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how ‘a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.’ In the deep past, people knew names had power. Some still do. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.
When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it. Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step. Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one. And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.”
It’s crucial that we call things by their true names because language determines our reality. When we say “a woman was raped” instead of “a man raped a woman,” the passive construction essentially erases him from the equation and absolves the perpetrator of responsibility. The result? Because passive voice transforms the grammatical object (the woman) into the subject, we begin to view rape as a “women’s issue.” In our discussions of sexual assault, we focus on the victim (“She shouldn’t have drank so much…”/”She shouldn’t have been walking down a dark alleyway alone…”) instead of the perpetrator. Rather than teach men to treat women with dignity and respect, we teach women it’s their responsibility to protect themselves against men’s violence. Ultimately, how we discuss rape dictates how we understand it. Or, as British philosopher Alain de Botton so astutely observed, “how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”
At the heart of Call Them By Their True Names is the assertion that words can either clarify or mystify, inform or mislead. They can liberate or oppress, promote tolerance and understanding or spread hate. In the end, we can only fix what we acknowledge is broken. When we call things by their true names, we can see the world as it is— and begin to change.