Sorry Paula Deen, But Words CAN Really Hurt You

Posted on June 25, 2013 by

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

– Rudyard Kipling

sticks and stones

sticks and stones and words (Photo credit: Lisa monster)

So much of my life is consumed by language. As a parent, I read all the What To Expect  books before and during my children’s younger years. I remember reading that to develop language, parents should speak everything out loud so the child would learn to acquire the correct vocabulary. I happily spent my days with baby Lily repeating “book”, “dog”, “peaches”, “Daddy”, “tree”, “bird” with endless enthusiasm. I wondered it strangers thought I was losing my mind. I never was the outspoken type myself.

Not surprisingly, it worked. She acquired lots of language, and with the help of ‘Baby Signs‘ became quite adept at expressing her feelings at a very young age. I loved it. I knew when she was happy, confused, and frustrated, and whenever she flashed that huge, drooly grin I knew the mind-numbing repetition was all worth it. Of course, until the day she oh-so-appropriately exclaimed “God dammit” at two years old. I had some explaining to do, but it gave me a strong reminder of the power of language.

My son would talk to anyone. I pitied the poor workers that came to remodel our house when he was two years old. He followed around the plumbers, the electricians, and anyone who would pay the smallest amount of attention to his burgeoning vocabulary. His precociousness usually garnered a smile from them as they went about their work, often engaging him in dialogue. He beamed and kept right on talking.

As a middle school English teacher, I start each year with an intense study of connotation and denotation of language. We read Lois Lowry’s novel, The Giver, and discuss precision of language in great detail. I know my students have heard the ‘sticks and stones’ nursery rhyme, but I want to break down that notion. I disagree. Words can really hurt you. Badly.

The real origin of that nursery rhyme can be traced back to the late 1800s, when it was presented in a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church as

Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words will never harm me.”

As any socially aware person knows, incidents of bullying and racism still exist in our world, and with the advent of technology and the ability to speed up communication, words spread faster than ever. We need to teach our children that words WILL harm them, and that just ignoring them isn’t enough. We need to choose our language carefully, always thinking about what the connotation is and the historical implications that may forever be associated with them.

Sorry, Paula Deen, but you’re learning this lesson the hard way.

FC 250 Grand Marshal, Paula Deen

FC 250 Grand Marshal, Paula Deen (Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway)

Celebrities have the unfortunate responsibility of being scrutinized for their every action. As much as technology and social media helps actors, musicians, writers, artists, and even chefs to spread their message and boost their sales, the flip side is the enormous social responsibility that goes along with it. Celebrities can choose to use their words to promote positive social change, like Macklemore does, or they can carelessly toss about hurtful and discriminatory language that does nothing but show their ignorance and perpetuate stereotypes. Sorry, Paula Deen. Apparently no amount of butter, sugar and friendly ‘y’alls’ can grease your way out of this one.

Some may say that the media  is over-reacting. That Paula Deen really isn’t a racist, a sexist, or anything else that she’s accused of. They may say that everyone makes mistakes and she should be forgiven. They may even say that anyone over the age of 60 should not be chastised for using the ‘n’ world, especially if they grew up in the South.

I don’t buy it.

There are no do-overs here. Once a word has escaped our mouths, it cannot be retrieved. It hangs there, in space, like a cloud that could either dissipate or drop hail. But it’s there for all to see. Words do hurt. Names do hurt. Stereotypes are perpetuated through ignorant use of language and irresponsible adults who think that if they get ‘caught’, they can just deny their culpability and say they really didn’t mean it.

How does that feel to the gay person who is called a ‘f’?

A black person who is called a ‘n’?

A woman who is called a ‘b”?

A Latino who is called a ‘s’?

A child who is called anything they deem hurtful, deflating, or just plain mean?

So thank you, Food Network, and all the other corporate sponsors who are taking this opportunity to stand up for language. You did the right thing. Don’t back down to those who say she really didn’t mean it. Because even if she didn’t, she said it. She had a choice with her language, and she threw down words that hurt. And she got caught. There’s a lot of kids out there who are watching her, and they need to know the power of language.

I hope we can all learn from this.

Sticks and stones may break your bones,

and words CAN really hurt you.

Sticks and Stones

Sticks and Stones (Photo credit: alsokaizen)



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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Comments: 13

  • My Inner Chick

    June 28, 2013

    –The person who said: “Sticks and Stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” was either an idiot or an abuser themselves.

    I despise that horrid quote.

    Verbal abuse is punching with the tongue rather than the fist.

    & the poisons of that venom can change who we are…who we become…. and the scars last forever.

    I know. My sister was verbally abused and then physically killed ( in the end )

    But we must not stay SILENT and Indifferent either when we witness abuse or violence or unfairness….

    PS…On the other hand, Paula Deen should be forgiven for being STUPID.

    I’ll tell you one thing…I WILL NOT throw the first stone. Instead of judging , we must use this situation as a teachable moment and STOP behaving as if we are better, more worthy than her.

    Anyhow, these are my thoughts.

    My Inner Chick recently posted…Murder, Therapy, & Walking Thru The FireMy Profile

    • Jennifer Wolfe

      June 28, 2013

      Dear Kim, I do agree with you. We must not be silent, and as a society we need to start learning that verbal abuse is as deadly as physical abuse. It is long term torture, and victims feel powerless. Using our voices to teach not only our children, but each other, that words have power and to choose them carefully. I thought it was interesting that today Martha Stewart said she felt sorry for PD, but wished she would learn from this that people in the spotlight need to choose what they say with caution. Thanks so much for commenting, my dear.

    • Jennifer Wolfe

      June 27, 2013

      Emily, people are full of excuses and exceptions. To me, the bottom line is that everyone needs to remember the power of language, and there are no exceptions. People who are in positions of power-like parents, teachers, celebrities, politicians, etc., have a huge responsibility to be careful what they say. Yes, it’s hard sometimes, but in the end it’s vitally important.

    • Jennifer Wolfe

      June 27, 2013

      Yes, Brenda, you’re right. Except that I believe when we are silent we are showing our approval, and in this case, I definitely disapprove.

  • Lindsey

    June 25, 2013

    I know this post is about far more than the Giver, but I’m stuck on that, and struck by the power of teaching that book. I think it’s such an outstanding example of the value of choosing each word, it’s language is so icily beautiful. Wonderful! xo

    • Jennifer Wolfe

      June 27, 2013

      Lindsey, isn’t it a marvelous book! I love teaching it, and even though I’m teaching American Lit in a chronological sequence, I love starting with The Giver and tying it into so many themes of American history…and my kids always say it’s the best book they’ve ever ‘had’ to read! Thanks for commenting today!

  • DB-The Foodie Stuntman

    June 25, 2013

    Purely from a business standpoint, I can understand Food Network’s decision not to renew her contract. The depositions released last week, were pretty damaging when looked at them with her diabetes scandal about 18 months ago. I think the final straw for the network was her failing to show for her appointment with Matt Lauer last Friday morning to explain herself.

    In her defense, I have a friend who owns a restaurant and he tells me that the back of the house isn’t a place where social norms exist. He told me he’s had plates thrown at him and racists slurs are common.

    That being said, I was never a fan because I just didn’t like her unhealthy dishes.
    DB-The Foodie Stuntman recently posted…Guest Post at Just Prepare It Deliciously: Old School Movie PopcornMy Profile

    • Jennifer Wolfe

      June 27, 2013

      Hello DB, and thank for commenting today. Thanks also for mentioning the transcripts-too many people are forgetting BOTH sides of the testimony, and are stuck on the ’30 years ago’ comment she made. The bottom line is that she is in a position of power and celebrity, and as a television personality and employer, she is subject to more scrutiny. As a teacher I am very careful with language, and feel that people are making far too many excuses to condone her behavior. No one is saying that we cannot use her recipes (they are fatty, though, aren’t they?) and that’s a personal choice. I believe people need to stop and think what the bigger message of all this really is.

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