Columns, Opinions

Okin ’19: Words matter

Staff Columnist
Thursday, April 6, 2017

I have always considered myself a champion of the importance of language. That stringing letters into a meaningful order can empower movements and fuel real-world change does nothing short of mystify me. I can typically be found declaring the power of the written word to any unlucky friend, relative or tall object that vaguely resembles a human being. But in the midst of my love for metaphors and lyrical imagery, I was neglecting something simple yet fundamental: the importance of precisely understanding a word’s definition.

There have been more instances than I’d like to admit where a conversation in the Ratty enters lexical territory I am unfamiliar with. What I’m more embarrassed to confess is the amount of times I do not seek a word’s true definitions — whether it in the moment or afterwards — and instead assume that a contextual guess is adequate. At best this technique is insufficient; at worst, it can threaten the very core of the movements driven by these words.

Whereas we can indefinitely debate over an author’s meaning via a metaphor, the intention behind the language of social movements is essential to its function. The most prominent example that comes to mind is the common misconstruing of “feminism.” Although the term is constantly associated in the media with a collection of strange descriptions (male-hating and no-shaving are two favorites), one who adheres to this “ism” simply concurs with the notion that all sexes are equal. And while a quick Google search will reveal that “feminism” can take many forms — from eco- to post-structuralist to socialist feminisms — the original equality-for-all sentiment of the term has provided the basis for these related movements. Thus, when we assume that surmising the meaning of words central to a movement will do, adding the newly defined word to our own repertoire, we play a detrimental game of Telephone. Suddenly, we unintentionally commit two sins: The first is stripping a word of its history and disrupting its future legacy; the second is that, over time, people engage in meaningless conversations, using the same words but obliviously talking about different things.

Words do change over time — as the world shifts and new people and things appear, inevitably our lexicon alters. But certain terms rely on their roots to ground and strengthen their meaning. To preserve these origins, we have to stop the chain of alterations before it begins. Whether the tool of choice is Google or an interruption in the conversation, find out the true meaning of the language you use.

Furthermore, if you find yourself in the position where your own lingo provokes more silence than responses from others, consider whether everyone in the room actually knows what you’re talking about. A discussion over the definition of a term could make a topic accessible to someone for the first time ever, encouraging participation in a dialogue that was once distant. Moreover, the act itself of discussing these meanings prompts us to internalize the importance of these words and their histories.

As we begin to formulate the arguments and slogans in support of our various causes, we inevitably jumpstart the process of demanding change. Thus, if we only have a half-hearted understanding of the words we use, we can only half-heartedly partake in our work. New Yorker writer Nora Caplan-Bricker aptly describes how dictionaries often associate negative adjectives with women — feminism is “rabid” and women’s voices are “shrill.” The debate over whether dictionaries should be descriptive or prescriptive — whether they should solely reflect existing attitudes or actually guide the way we use language — is as fundamental as it is unresolved. Yet, I want to suggest that while we can argue about this tension in the context of dictionaries, there should be nothing ambiguous about its implication in our lives. As we work to combat injustice, our prescriptions for social ills hinge on our understanding of the descriptive power of our language. Progress depends on the language we use on our protest signs, in our leaders’ speeches and throughout our social media spaces. But without truly understanding the meaning of this language, our activist endeavors are slated to stumble from the start.

Rebecca Okin ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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