News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

A new four-letter word?

Back in the mid-1990s I stopped calling my sandals “thongs.” Because none of us wants to be like that guy to whom “The Princess Bride” character Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” If we hope to be understood, word choice matters. Word choice can mean the difference between a good-natured snowball fight and throwing stones.

Writers and editors are a special kind of weird. I never close the Merriam-Webster tab on my browser. A fun feature of M-W’s landing page is “Top Lookups Right Now.” This list refreshes every 30 seconds. It’s true — at any given moment you can view the top 10 words Americans are looking up in the dictionary!

One word claims the top spot more often than any other: woke. Just now when I opened my laptop, the word sat in the number-eight spot, then disappeared from the list for 30 seconds only to reappear at number one. This has held true all year, which I take to mean two things: It’s a word we’re all running into. And no one knows for sure what it means.

You’d think Merriam-Webster could resolve the muddle. But dictionaries are only a mirror reflecting the ways we currently employ a word. M-W lists woke as an adjective, “chiefly slang,” and offers two definitions.

1. aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)

2. disapproving : politically liberal (as in matters of racial and social justice) especially in a way that is considered unreasonable or extreme

So it seems this word can refer either to someone devoted to causes that affect human thriving, or to someone thought of as taking culture care too far. One meaning has positive overtones. The other is pejorative. One person’s arms-wide-open is another person’s Armageddon. As words go, this one’s as clear as dishwater.

It’s understandable, really. We’re attempting to place meaningful words around cultural shifts for which we feel underprepared. Still, I hear my friends use woke as if its meaning is self-evident. So I’ve found it helpful to ask, “What do you mean exactly?” Because if we as a community hope to tend our patch of common ground, we have to continuously cultivate a common language.

Honestly, it’s a little awkward. But then the other person will switch to easily understood language and say, “Well, I’m afraid of...” or, “I’m concerned about...” and name a specific issue.

My integrity as a writer dictates I avoid words that are ambiguous. My Christian faith impels me to steer clear of words that are judgmental. And there can come a point when a word slides from unhelpful to ugly. Maybe even unsanctified.

Words are how we express meaning, love, wonder. Words are also weapons.

Language has the power to shape reality and thought. It’s central to how we treat others as fellow creatures of value and worth. Sometimes lately while traveling in my usual social circles, I’ve felt like I took a wrong turn. As if somehow I landed in the school cafeteria at the mean kids’ table. Narrowed eyes, hushed criticism, fear-mongering. Woke, they whisper. Out of the same mouths pour both blessings and curses. “My brothers and sisters, this should not be,” wrote Jesus’ brother James.

The enemy isn’t those who may or may not be misguided in their efforts to be good people. The enemy is the same it’s always been: fear. Fear and suspicion cripple love.

“Tread carefully,” my husband said when I mentioned the topic of this piece. One wrong word and I’d be misunderstood. Exactly! I thought. One wrong word.

Assigning labels is a bully move, we tell our children. But are we inviting political pundits into our homes (via TV) who use them? Are we modeling how to scan for danger, but not for love? Are we parroting words others are using without ever looking them up in the dictionary? Will we allow language to shape our fears? To tear us asunder?

When we use words carelessly we don’t just slight others, we do ourselves a disservice. Because those who value authentic, deeply felt communication are likely to dismiss all of our words out of hand.

So let’s pursue common language to put to our common mission. After all, aren’t most of us just trying to find the way of love in a world of hurt?


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